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Students, Faculty Conflicted Over Return to In-Person Labs

Upon the return to campus, students and faculty showed mixed reactions about the transition back to in-person classroom labs.
Upon the return to campus, students and faculty showed mixed reactions about the transition back to in-person classroom labs. By Pei Chao Zhuo
By Justin Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

Upon the return to campus, students and faculty showed mixed reactions about the transition back to in-person classroom labs.

Julia Espeso, the lab manager for Gen Ed 1104: “Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science,” said Covid-19 safety measures in the classroom have detracted from the overall class experience.

“Science and Cooking is a place for students to eat their own labs — that’s part of the curriculum, we want students to eat what they’re creating, and of course, we can’t do that in the lab,” Espeso said. “We’re kind of missing that big part of all of us enjoying what we just created together.”

Despite the limitations, Espeso pointed to the class’s high enrollment compared to previous years as evidence that students are actively looking for lab experiences that are “hands-on.”

“I think students have received it — they’re well aware that we’re doing what we can to offer them the best experience possible — so I think they’re enjoying it a lot,” Espeso said.

Joao Pedro “JP” Vieira ’22 said he prefers being back in the classroom for labs because it was difficult to absorb material while learning remotely and that an in-person, hands-on experience is the “best way to learn.”

Ye Rim “Grace” Chang ’22 echoed her preference for hands-on learning in her class, Life Sciences 2: “Evolutionary Human Physiology and Anatomy.”

“I’m really glad that we’re in-person because a lot of it is dissecting,” Chang said. “When you have it right in front of you and you’re able to touch it, you could definitely learn better.”

Vieira pointed out the convenience of doing labs online, however, as an advantage of virtual learning over in-person instruction.

“It takes less time, it’s less of a thing you have to walk to and be in-person,” Vieira said. “I think being in-person just takes a lot more energy out of you.”

Chang also argued that participating in labs virtually saved lots of time and noted that a virtual format made visual observations in experiments more apparent, which was beneficial to her learning.

“You can just fast forward the reaction and see it dramatically change the colors and it’s a really cool thing to watch, instead of standing there for 30 minutes and seeing that gradually change,” Chang said.

Chang added that doing lab experiments virtually allowed her to worry less about details and “being super meticulous,” and that she could instead focus on understanding why students were conducting the lab.

With the benefits of virtual labs in mind, Dean of Science Christopher W. Stubbs said Harvard’s Board of Overseers and the Science Education Office are discussing the question of what aspects of virtual learning could be applied in the return to in-person work.

“What lessons did we learn from the pandemic experience that can be applied to the in-person component of what we do at Harvard?” he said.

Stubbs said organizing virtual lab experiences over the past year forced the faculty to reckon with questions of equitable access and diversity.

“The conversation with the overseers, I think interestingly, rapidly turned to how much the faculty learned about the diversity of our student body, and the extent to which having people come to campus goes partway — but not all the way — to leveling the playing field and preparing people to step up and be active learners on campus,” Stubbs said.

Stubbs added that the virtual academic year helped students and faculty to connect in new ways.

“I think in some ways, the experience of encountering one another over Zoom from our respective homes put us more in touch with people as fellow humans than I think is the case when we all walk into the classroom together,” Stubbs added. “I hope that’s a spirit that we can carry forward into everything that we do together.”

—Staff writer Justin Lee can be reached at

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