Distance learning has provided new meaning to the phrase “backyard science”

COVID-19 has changed the world in many ways, education is one of them. To best protect everyone and control the spread, educational institutions have moved towards an online delivery method, allowing students to continue to learn without the need to attend classes face to face. The rise in distance learning has introduced many different education technology (edtech) solutions that help support the various activities and events that often occur within learning environments, some notable mentions include video conferencing software, learning management system and digital exam invigilation services and software. Although some institutions have slowly transitioned back to face-to-face teaching, an online delivery is often still available and despite the vast number of educational technologies available, there are still some inherent shortcomings and issues associated with distance learning. The numerous restrictions and protective measures present an issue for education as not all subjects and content can be delivered through a digital medium due to the nature of the work to be undertaken, lab-based work is an example of that.

Professor Luis Schettino walking through the dissection of a sheep’s brain for Physiological Psychology 2 lab. [Image sourced from Lafayette College website]

For a number of students studying fields related to science practical work in laboratories forms a large part of their studies and in light of the many changes to education, it has introduced the problem of how lessons of the sort can be provided COVID safe manner. Lafayette College, University of Arizona and Stanford University have found unique solutions to that very problem and have taken the phrase “backyard science” to a whole new level as they try to find suitable solutions for practical activities. Although backyard science is commonly known as a children’s television show, its definition can be summed up as scientific experiments conducted using everyday equipment to provide scientific insight. All three institutions have reportedly mailed out organic materials such as a sheep’s brain, cow’s eyeball, and an entire foetal pig to students in an effort to continue laboratory-based classes or programs despite remote study.

While sending out “learning materials” for students to use as part of their studies has become the new norm, sending students organic material presents a clear biosafety concern if the materials are not handled and disposed of properly. Professor Schettio from Lafayette College has told Futurism that many measures are in place to ensure students are able to perform lab work in a safe manner, as such basic lab safety rules and guides (such as wearing proper protective equipment and using the proper tools) still apply despite the shift to e-learning. It should also be noted that all items that student receive in their dissection package from Lafayette College is non-toxic and students are not expected to perform the dissection themselves per say, they are walked through it as would occur conventionally but do not have the traditional oversight and guidance from professors or tutors as they would in a laboratory on campus. The organic materials were also preserved via non-toxic materials and vacuum sealed as well to further ensure that it is safe for all. 

Protective gear and required equipment for at home dissection. [Image taken by Julie Taraborelli for Buzzfeed News]

Many students of the affected students had expected to receive lab equipment such as a scalpel, gloves and other protective gear or even a fake dissection kit where students could learn via the use of plastic models, no one had predicted that colleges and universities would be sending out real animal parts with instructions on how to dissect. 

Students have been left shocked and surprised as their institutions continue to send out organic materials for at home lab classes, Lafayette student Maggie Ledwith has echoed this, telling Daily Mail that “performing a dissection on a sheep’s brain at home was not something I would have foreseen myself doing”. University of Arizona Student Julie Taraborelli shared the unique unboxing experience on TikTok where a sheep’s brain, cow’s eyeball and foetal pig can be seen, in the video someone in the background can be heard commenting on the pungent smell emanating from the package. Taraborelli has spoken and further elaborated her experience to Buzzfeed News and CBC

Lafayette student Maggie Ledwith performing a sheep’s brain dissection at home. [Image sourced from Lafayette College website]

Despite how shocking, strange or grotesque the at home laboratory sessions may be, Professor Schettio mentioned to Futurism that there is no substitute for labs in an online environment and that mailing out materials to students is the second-best option. Even as the solution for face-to-face laboratory classes may be less than ideal, Stanford’s clinical summer internship program was still well received albeit that it was conducted remotely.  University of Southern California student Caitlin Dinh echoes this sentiment as she told Scope, Stanford’s medicine blog, that she “really enjoyed the course” and learnt a lot about medicine. 

As the world continues to adapt to the new norm, it is fair to assume that sending students dissection kits may become standard for conducting practical lessons in the time of e-learning as it ensures students can continue to learn despite not being on campus.  In the words of J.K. Rowling, “Anything’s possible if you’ve got enough nerve” and according to Lafayette College, University of Arizona and Stanford University that includes at home laboratory lessons. 

This article was written by Jennifer Luu.

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