Lab, studio classes present tough online challenges


As the University switches to online learning in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic, professors with lab and studio courses are trying to figure out how to best accommodate their students.

Cynthia Golden, executive director of Pitt’s Center for Teaching and Learning, said in Pittwire on March 16 that adapting lab and studio classes will be one of the toughest challenges.

“While not everything can easily be taught remotely, we expect that faculty will work to think a little differently about these classes,” Golden said. “Our instructors can be very creative. We expect to see some studio or performance classes use synchronous web conferencing; others may use video to demonstrate a technique and have students use video to show they have mastered it. And we expect to soon have access to some of the new lab simulation tools — keep an eye on the center’s website for updated information.”

Studio Arts

The chancellor’s decision to close campus buildings and switch to online courses wasn’t a surprise for Delanie Jenkins, associate professor and chair of the Department Studio Arts, or her colleagues.

The main shock came when it was time to figure out how to accommodate the students whose work often depends on Pitt’s facilities.

“It takes a while to acclimate in this kind of situation,” Jenkins said. “And what is realistic has changed from day to day.”

The sudden switch to online learning has been stressful for faculty, she said, but it’s particularly difficult for students. Many students left in the middle of projects, or finished projects that they didn’t take back. Some didn’t take their art supply kits with them on spring break, she added.

But Jenkins is confident that her students can eventually adapt to this difficult situation, and in some ways, it could influence the art they create, she said.

“Artists are resourceful,” Jenkins said. “And so you don’t need to have a fancy foundry or bronze casting potential to be able to respond to what’s happening or how you feel or to express that.”

However, the seniors in the department were expected to debut their art in an annual exhibition in the University Art Gallery. Since the building is closed, Jenkins said she’s been thinking of implementing a virtual gallery to make up for it. 

Chemistry labs

The transition to online teaching has been pretty smooth so far for George Bandik, senior lecturer and director of undergraduate advising and student services in the Department of Chemistry, even though this is his first time teaching an online course.

“This has been a whole new experience for me,” Bandik said. “I am not a big technology person. So that was what my biggest fear was — that I was going to really struggle with this…. It’s been much better than I honestly expected.”

The online transition has been great for advising in particular, but Bandik said he’d much rather connect with students face-to-face instead of by phone. However, some elements of Bandik’s honors organic chemistry lab course aren’t able to transition to online.

There are 15 students in his course, and normally, the students would work as teams, write an original research proposal, physically perform the chemistry, do an oral presentation and write a final report.

The online course isn’t able to accommodate the lack of lab access, and the rest of the assignments will be done via Zoom meetings.

“You can imagine that not being able to go into the lab makes completing that course in the traditional way truly impossible,” Bandik said, adding that the students will have to write a final report based on experimentation they’ve done up until the University closed its buildings.

Bandik said accommodating students is even more challenging for general chemistry labs and organic labs, which can have hundreds of students.

There have been some solutions to the lack of lab access. Professors have been able to produce videos of the labs the students would miss and create worksheets based on them.

But learning how to use the equipment in a laboratory setting is an experience that can’t quite be replicated at home, especially when it comes to learning how to properly and safely handle chemicals. Students also weren’t allowed to take any equipment home with them.

“It’s hard to do lab online,” Bandik said. “You really have to be there to gain the skills and to understand how to use the equipment and stuff like that. I think they’re doing the best they can in this situation.”

Music ensembles

The Department of Music also has its own unique sets of challenges with the closing of Pitt’s buildings. The closures pushed Mathew Rosenblum, chair of the Department of Music, into the tough position of closing practice rooms for sanitary reasons.

While music theory courses and private lessons can be adapted for online learning, Rosenblum said that faculty were unable to figure out a way to adapt Pitt’s ensemble programs to the changes.

Pitt’s three choirs — the Heinz Chapel Choir, the Women’s Choral Assemble and the Men’s Glee Club — had international tours planned throughout Europe, but Pitt Study Abroad had to cancel these tours due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The 10 to 12 music ensembles, including orchestra, jazz and African drumming, also were canceled for the rest of the semester, Rosenblum said. 

“There’s no way you can convene an ensemble online, it doesn’t work,” Rosenblum said. “We put our heads together, we thought about it, we consulted other places and somewhere, the technology is actually out there to have an ensemble convene virtually but it depends on listening to the person next to you.”

Instructors will have to grade the students’ work up to spring break, he added.

Both Rosenblum and Jenkins said they had been using a combination of email and Zoom for online courses. Jenkins said she and other faculty have made an effort to keep communication as simple as possible.

She and faculty will continue to figure out how to best accommodate students and keep them connected with faculty as much as possible as Pitt continues to adjust to online learning.

“We are really all together, and I hope we can find connection,” Jenkins said. “That’s the thing that’s going to be most important is how to find connection through this separation.”

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-383-9905.  


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