The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a novel challenge for laboratories all over the world. Laboratory work in general requires many precautions, and with COVID-19, these precautions have been heightened. Just as anywhere else, difficulties in conducting scientific experiments posed by the pandemic also apply to science classes at Concord Academy. With the HyFlex model and a portion of students staying remote, hands-on lab activities on campus become impossible. However, the Science Department developed flexible ways that engage students in the same skills involved in hands-on lab activities.

Will Tucker, a chemistry teacher at CA, shared, “One of the things we value is hands-on work, but more essentially there is the development of observational and analytical skills.” Since federal laws prohibit shipments of chemicals, science teachers have to be mindful of the materials people might have at home. One assignment in Sophomore Chemistry was to mix baking soda and vinegar for an acid-base reaction. Students were asked to make different measurements and take notes of any changes they see. Tucker commented, “It wasn’t the most exciting reaction, but we were able to practice the identification of molecules, nomenclature, significant figures, measurement, and really pulled out a lot of information from the reaction.” 

Susan Flink, another faculty of the Science Department who teaches both chemistry and biology, explained, “We found the things that students can do in their own spaces and share their observations.” She gave the example of the “gummy bear lab” in freshman biology, where students put gummy bears into two different solutions to explore the concepts of osmosis and diffusion. 

But there are certain limits to doing hands-on activities at home. For example, safety in conducting experiments has become an essential consideration in the design of activities, given that there would be no professional supervision when students carry out these experiments at home. The “candle lab” is a classic activity in sophomore chemistry, but due to safety concerns, it assumed a different form this year. Students watched a recording of the science team conducting the experiment and noted observations and analysis in their “STACtivity worksheet” based on the video.

Tucker noted, “The hands-on work has, to some degree, diminished by what we’re limited to. What that has meant is that we really try to highlight those observational and analytical skills.” The STACtivities in Advanced Chemistry were also largely based on pre-recorded materials prepared by teachers. One experiment involved Tucker and Max Hall deflecting a cation ray with electric and magnetic fields, and another was a purely theoretical model constructed with data and formulas on Excel.

In Advanced Biology, however, the focus has been shifted toward reviews and synthesis of scientific papers. In turn, the pandemic has opened up opportunities for elaborate discussions about viruses, molecular genetics, and the immune systems through the lens of COVID-19. As Kim Kopelman remarked, the science team “[has] changed the curriculum to embrace what is happening and teach students about it so that [students] can understand it better.”

Nevertheless, hands-on work remains an intrinsic part of the learning experience. “At its core, science is fundamentally an empirical experiential process,” noted Will. Hands-on practice is a key component of giving students a glimpse into what doing science is like as they run into technical and logistical challenges that exist solely in experiments. These experiments also function as a bridge between the reality and the hypothetical abstraction that lectures and problems provide.

Just as the pandemic has accelerated vaccine development, the difficulties that it posed opened the window for critical evaluations of the ways that science has been taught. Space for innovation and reinvention has resulted. Even though the pandemic has brought many inconveniences, the Science Department remains flexible and adaptive to preserve the learning experiences and skill developments of CA students.