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Portsmouth biology professors get creative with virtual labs

What can you do with two pieces of bubble gum, two pieces of wax, 1 meter of string and a ruler?

Demonstrate the scientific method, of course!

Tidewater Community College students taking summer biology classes on the Portsmouth Campus discovered that in their initial remote lab experiment.

“Our faculty found creative ways for students to be successful and save money,” said Michelle Woodhouse, interim vice president for Academic Affairs and chief academic officer.

TCC students didn’t have to hunt down the supplies for the online labs, either. Instead, everything they needed for every lab was packaged and delivered curbside by staffer Nancy Jones, who wore gloves and a mask while passing kits through the passenger window.

Jones typically sets up labs for science students, but the transition to virtual learning due to COVID-19 prompted professors Katrina Dash and Siobhan Harris to be more innovative than usual. Typically science kits for in-person labs cost students $140. Instead, Dash and Harris devised their own kits that largely consist of everyday items, including peroxide, vinegar, food coloring, sugar and fruit.

Supplies for the science lab kits

Originally the plan called for students to purchase the materials themselves.

“Then we re-evaluated,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to spring that on our students and have them out shopping during COVID.”

Instead, Jones collected the items, many already in supply on campus and others bought at The Dollar Store. “Baking soda is a cleaning agent and so is peroxide, so because of COVID-19, they were a little harder to find.”

Jones assembled all the nonperishable items in the kits in her home – “to the delight of my cats” – she noted and even color-coded them for easy distribution at the Portsmouth Campus. BIO 101 students received one kit; BIO 106, another, and she even ensured students had the right size of gloves before they drove away.

Cost to the student: $0. She estimates each kit cost no more than $5 to assemble.

“Students take pictures of themselves performing the labs,” Harris said. Also, they answer questions on the lab and must pass a quiz. The integrity of the lab is important. We want this to be a real learning experience.”

Ninety kits were assembled; WAVY chatted with the professors and Jones during one of two distribution days.