Back to Utrecht Science Park: photo report of the first lab practicals
Experimenting at a safe distance in the lab practicals in Physics and Pharmaceutical Sciences
With the easing of the coronavirus control measures, the university now has more options when it comes to education. A look behind the scenes at two of the first lab practicals to take place on location at Utrecht Science Park.
“We started planning two months ago”, says Peter van Capel, lecturer for the first-year Physics course Waves and Optics. “There are so many things you have to take into consideration. The Facilities Service Centre worked on all of the necessary preconditions: the routes inside the buildings, maximum occupancy, those kinds of things. We were responsible for the floor plan and hygiene measures in the lab.”
The result is a spacious lab, with one setup for every pair of students. The students are responsible for maintaining sufficient distance between one another. Van Capel: “The atmosphere is a bit more serious than usual, but that can also have to do with the low capacity, just like an empty restaurant isn’t that cozy. Apart from that, I didn’t get the sense that it was awkward for the students. It is a bit difficult as a lab supervisor: normally you’d take a look over someone’s shoulder, or turn a knob to show what happens. Not being able to do that does take some getting used to.”
After months of designing their own experiments at home, the students can now come together to complete the course at Utrecht Science Park. “We thought it was important to bring the students back into contact just before they crossed the finish line at the end of the academic year,” Van Capel explains. That did require some adaptability from everyone involved, however: instead of two half-days per week for four weeks, the students now had to spend four full days working on the lab seminar. “The effectiveness is lower, and there’s less time for reflection between sessions. So we take that into consideration, of course.”
Van Capel has nothing but praise for the students. “I noticed how hard they’ve worked over the past few months. That’s exceptional, especially because I know that it wasn’t easy for a lot of the students. It was difficult to maintain contact remotely, but based on the work they’ve turned in, and especially the questions they ask, they’ve clearly been serious about their work. We notice that during the lab practical as well: everyone shows up on time, concentrates on their work, and tries to make the best of things. I really admire that, and it’s very motivating for me as well.”
At the Pharmaceuticals Sciences Department the lab practicals also started again at the beginning of July. Normally around thirty students join together in one lab, now the students were divided over three labs, with a maximum of ten students per room and many extra lecturers. "It's especially difficult to give instructions in the new setting”, says lecturer Frederique Leboux, coordinator of the master course Individual product care.
"Normally we give a lot of individual instructions; then we come sit at their table and help them out. Now we had to say: please step aside and I'll show you how it's done. Or we tried to explain from a distance how they could do things differently", says Leboux. "Earlier, we always did the debrief immediately after the practical, all together in a room; now we do that afterwards via Teams."
Planning the practical was perhaps the biggest challenge. Ensuring that there is no overlap with practicals from other courses, but also taking into account the online programme of students. "If students have an online test until 2:00 p.m., they can't be in a lab at the Science Park at 2:30 p.m.. And they also have to be able to travel outside rush hours. It was a huge puzzle to schedule all the students."
Nevertheless, the lecturers have succeeded well. If necessary, Leboux will do the debriefing if at 8.30 p.m., so that everyone has time to travel. "We just have to make do and mend”, says Leboux. "I am very positively surprised by the attitude of the students. They are very grateful that we can arrange this and that they can come to the Science Park again. During the practical they were very careful and followed the rules very well. It was a difficult to predict into detail how things would go, but it went very well."