At home, but still engaged with STEM classes

While instructional laboratories on campus are closed, students, faculty, and instructors are finding creative solutions for science, math, and engineering courses and projects.

phil gressman lecturing in his office
In this photograph taken in February 2019, professor Phil Gressman and a group of students talk through a math problem. The complexity of communicating math, especially in advanced-level courses, was one of the challenges faced by Penn instructors and students in moving coursework online.

As researchers work to combat the novel coronavirus, their ongoing efforts showcase both the intellectual and physical requirements that mark progress in STEM fields. Complex mathematical models help epidemiologists study the spread of COVID-19, while others must be present in the lab to test samples, develop vaccines, and manufacture essential healthcare equipment.

With campus buildings closed since the middle of March, some of the aspects of a STEM education, including hands-on practical labs, had to be left behind. Despite the challenges of moving instruction online, students, faculty, and instructors have found creative solutions for science, math, and engineering courses and projects, making the best of a difficult situation while emphasizing the importance of connection and collaboration.

Scientific fundamentals

Hundreds of undergraduates in the natural sciences, nursing, medicine, and engineering disciplines take Chemistry 101 and 102, an introduction to the fundamentals of the field, which also includes laboratory courses Chem 053 and 054. Unable to send Bunsen burners and burettes to students at home, general chemistry laboratory director Jenine Maeyer and the Chem 053/054 teaching assistants took pictures of the work for the semester’s remaining experiments. 

chemistry lecture hall with periodic table in background
For her lectures, Jenine Maeyer adjusted to online learning by making short videos of her presentations. She also encouraged discussions on Canvas so that students could discuss problems with one another and ask questions to TAs.

With detailed images of how the experiments were done, as well as the data collected at each step, students were still able to follow the procedures and learn key scientific concepts at home. “It would have been better if the students were doing it themselves, but we tried to look at the bigger picture and focus on giving students exposure to different concepts,” says Maeyer.

Another series of fundamental science courses taken by hundreds each year are Biology 101 and 102. Led by instructional lab coordinator Linda Robinson, Biology 101 provides an introduction to the tools and techniques used in biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and genetics, while Biology 102 delves into evolution, plant and animal anatomy, and ecology.

The approach in moving biology labs online included a shifted focus on key scientific skills that don’t require bench work, such as experimental design, analyzing data, and scientific writing, while students could still engage with new scientific concepts through online simulations, videos of experiments recorded before campus was closed, and analyzing data collected in previous semesters.

But, says Robinson, what’s still missing is the excitement that comes from getting involved with science hands-on. “Our course goals are still achievable, but not knowing what will happen, doing the experiment yourself—that’s what’s exciting about a lab course,” she says.

Recreating the lab at home

While the majority of physics and engineering lab courses have also been significantly disrupted, a handful of courses were able to find ways to recreate part of the laboratory experience for students now learning at home.

Physics 364 is an intensive three-hour, twice-a-week lab course where students learn about analog and digital electronics. “It’s about seeing electronic devices not as black boxes but as a complex collections of building blocks,” says instructor Bill Ashmanskas. During the shift to online learning, Ashmanskas and co-instructor Jose Vithayathil were challenged with figuring out how to best replicate the hands-on and interactive experience of the course.

physic lab and equipment
Even without access to the equipment in the electronics lab, students with at-home kits were still able to complete some of the hands-on aspects of Phys 364, such as this counter that Aleksia and Vasia Barka were able to build on a breadboard. “It would have been sad if we weren’t able to continue, so I’m very grateful to have this,” says Aleksia Barka.

After figuring out the minimal components needed to do the work outside the lab, Ashmanskas and Vithayathil put together custom kits to send to students, including computer-based oscilloscopes as an at-home alternative to the lab’s specialized equipment. Online circuit simulators and video recordings were also available so that students could still fulfil the course objectives without the kits. “It takes more time to do this at home, so they can watch the videos and choose some subset of the work to do themselves,” says Ashmanskas.

Aleksia and Vasia Barka, both sophomores in the Molecular Life Sciences program from Etobicoke, Canada, signed up for Physics 364 so they could learn critical thinking skills and gain experience using electronics. “When the shutdown happened, this was one of the courses we worried about,” says Aleksia Barka. “You want to keep doing hands-on work as much as possible because it’s one of the reasons why we took the class.”

andre dehon course equipment
In ESE 150, students were able to turn on Internet Controlled LED lights, connected to LEGO models set up at the home of professor Andre DeHon, and were able to watch the results over Google Hangouts. “A lot of the components getting smaller, and labs happen in software-driven hardware, so we [the ESE department] are poised to take this opportunity to deliver the same experience at home,” adds Siddharth Deliwala.

Thanks to their at-home kits, they were able to keep doing lab experiments at home, including making a digital music keyboard out of electrical switches and logic gates. “You can see immediate results, and when you make it work it’s satisfying,” says Vasia Barka.

Two electrical and systems engineering (ESE) labs, Digital Audio Basics (ESE 150) and Controlling the World (ESE 516), were also able to provide students with at-home lab kits. On the last day that the campus was open, ESE lab programs director Siddharth Deliwala and Detkin lab staff Leslie Birch quickly gathered the materials for students in ESE 150 to help students understand how data packets travel through a network and circuit boards with LED lights that students could wire and program themselves. For course like ESE 516 that emphasizes designing industry-standard internet of things (IoT) products, students were provided with the materials needed to be able to have a genuine data and cloud experience while at home. For lab courses like ESE 190 where work was not feasible to do at home, instructors turned to Tinkercad, a microcontroller simulator with the same types of boards that are used in the lab.

Celebrating seniors

For Deliwala, one of the biggest challenges and heartbreaks were the numerous senior design projects across the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “That was something that we didn’t know what to do for a couple of days,” says Deliwala. “All the teams had worked hard for an entire year, and in the last 3 weeks is when it all comes together.” Their solution to celebratating the accomplishments of each team was through 30 minute Zoom presentations by each group, with a panel of 16 alumni judges participating in the virtual demo day.

One group of ESE seniors had been working since the fall semester on a noise isolation device that snaps onto existing headphones. Team TiTo, which stands for “Tune in, Tune out,” was close to completing the final integration of their hardware and software before spring break, but without access to their product after the campus was closed, the team had to quickly shift focus. “Everything moved to software side when we couldn’t access the lab,” says senior Kyler Mintah from Johannesburg, South Africa.

tune in tune out device with ransford
Ransford Antwi models one of Team TiTo’s early prototypes. While they were disappointed not to be able to complete their final integration, Antwi and his teammates were glad that their project came together as well as it did and that they were able to showcase their year of hard work.

Through online work sessions, where team members worked on components and talked over video, the team developed a final virtual integration while also focusing on marketing and product design. For their final presentation during the (now virtual) Annual Demo Day, the team relied on videos of demonstrations they had recorded earlier in the semester. “We had put in at least two rounds of design iterations and had filmed it, and our advisor had said, ‘Every time it works, film it’,” says senior AJ Geers from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “We couldn’t have a physical final product, but the general idea was there.”

While they were disappointed not to be able to complete their final integration, Team TiTo members were glad that they were able to showcase their year of hard work. “We’re proud of how it all came together,” says senior Celine Lee of Sunnyvale, California. They add that it was great to see the work of the other senior design teams and commended the department for being responsive to the situation. “The department was helpful throughout entire process,” says senior Ransford Antwi of Accra, Ghana.

Covering complex topics

While students taking math courses don’t have to worry about lab experiments, moving math instruction online poses its own unique challenges. “Math is probably the most lock-step field of study,” says undergraduate chair Dennis DeTurck. “Not only does the level of sophistication increase, the subject matter deepens and is very hierarchical.”

This is especially apparent in the two-course series Advanced Analysis (Math 508 and 509), with the spring semester’s Math 509 building off work from the fall semester. The course delves into how problems typically seen in an introductory calculus course are actually proved and relies on a combination of lectures, board work, and homework problems.

During the shift to online learning, professor Phil Gressman realized that delivering this already challenging course would require a carefully thought-out approach. “Math communication is hard, especially at advanced level. You can put the material out there, but having someone walking through it is really important. You can’t just say ‘Read this and we’ll talk about it.’”

By converting his longer lectures into shorter videos, lecture times then became reserved for explanation and discussion. “With the videos to watch before, we can use class time to work through problems,” says first-year Applied Mathematics and Computational Science Master’s student Megan Harley. “We are still getting that engagement and learning how to apply these concepts to a real-world application.”

Maintaining connections

Maintaining a sense of community, through group projects, discussion boards, and Slack channels, has also been one of Gressman’s goals for this semester. “I think a lot about the way that social interactions affect learning, especially in active learning, so I didn’t want to remove personal interaction,” says Gressman.

First-year Bridge to Ph.D. student Oualid Merzouga agrees, adding that being able to have active discussions while working on complex problems is important. Being able to connect with Gressman over Slack, he says, was incredibly helpful. “In office hours you can go back and forth with questions, which is important for homework. Now, if I have questions, Slack is really responsive—I was getting answers in minutes,” says Merzouga.

Slack also proved useful for students in Phys 364, where they were able to ask questions of the TAs and instructors and get answers rapidly as they troubleshoot their at-home lab work. In other lab courses, where students often work in pairs or in groups, previously established partnerships have continued over Zoom, while in the engineering labs, informal “study hours” allow students to connect to one another during virtual drop-in sessions.

Adapting and improvising

While the mid-semester disruption to courses and projects was far from ideal, the campus community has come together to ensure that students learn core concepts while being adaptable and understanding. “Everyone has done the best they can, and everyone has stepped up where the help is needed,” says Maeyer. “At the end of day, hands-on is better, but we were able to get through it together.”

Robinson adds that while some have missed out on eagerly anticipated experiments this semester, the feedback received so far from students has been positive. “This is all so new, an experiment in itself, but I think it’s gone better than expected,” she says.

physics course 364 from the fall
Fully replicating the laboratory experience of Phys 364, pictured here in Fall of 2017, was a challenge, but Bill Ashmanskas and Jose Vithayathil now hope to use the learnings from this semester in the future. Now, it will be easier for students to make up labs if they are absent, to facilitate self-study during the summer, or to incorporate electronics modules into existing courses.

“It’s a very different experience, doing this in a solitary way instead of going around from group to group helping debug, but we’re making it work,” says Ashmanskas about Physics 364’s shift from laboratory to home-based instruction. “While we've had to do quite a bit of improvisation along the way, I have been very happy to see that we succeeded at making it possible for students to do the lab exercises from home using real hardware.”

Ashmanskas and Vithayathil now hope to use the learnings from this semester to help future Phys 364 students to make up labs if they are absent, to facilitate self-study during the summer, or to incorporate electronics modules into existing courses. The videos created by Ashmanskas will also remain an asset for this course in the future. “People can go at their own pace following the video. I think that is an enhancement to what we had before,” says Vithayathil.

In engineering labs, the “hybrid” approach of combining hands-on work with online simulations is something that Deliwala hopes can enhance future courses. “Labs were the last thing that people want to do remotely,” says Deliwala. “It’s an opportunity for engineers to design online course delivery in a more exciting way. I am optimistic that we will become better in delivering instruction online than before—that’s going to be good for everyone.”

Another common thread, voiced by Gressman and others, is that maintaining community and focusing on student well-being is as essential as finding innovative ways to teach material online. “There’s research that shows that a general level of well-being influences the effectiveness of learning,” says Gressman. “People are getting a little fatigued from all the challenges, which I think is reasonable, but overall spirits are still good.”

Additional information and resources on COVID-19 are available at

Homepage image: Senior Ransford Antwi from Accra, Ghana showcases one of the components for his Electrical and Systems Engineering senior design project with Team Tito (Tune in, Tune out). The team was close to completing the final integration of their noise isolation device, but without access to their product after the campus was closed, the team had to quickly shift focus to marketing and product design.