Teaching basic and conceptual science without access to laboratories has emerged as a challenge for teachers in schools and colleges across the country as classes move online.

As the Covid-19 pandemic forced a nationwide lockdown, schools and colleges moved to an online mode of instruction. However, explaining concepts in science without stepping into an actual laboratory has become equally difficult for teachers and students.

“The initial few days of online teaching was tough for all of us. The science teachers were tried to figure out ways and means of teaching concepts to students in a manner that they could understand," said Kshama Valanjoo, assistant headmistress, VPM’s Vidya Mandir High School in Dahisar.

The challenge has pushed teachers to innovate in their teachings by using visual aids. For example, science teachers at Valanjoo’s school used videos and diagrams.

“While some laws in physics were explained with the help of videos and diagrammatic representations, teachers also used available resources like dry cells to demonstrate some simple experiments from their homes," said Valanjoo. The school has also allowed teachers to carry a few science apparatus at home for teaching purposes.

At Kandivli’s Children’s Academy school, teachers have started using simulation platforms to demonstrate experiments to students. “We had started exploring the idea even before the pandemic. There are several simulation-based resources that explain concepts in science in a very interesting manner. These platforms can be used by teachers in online classes and students can be asked to try out the experiments post class," said Nikita Mukhopadhyay, research associate (physics) at Children’s Academy. The school has also delivered STEM kits to students of Grade 3 to 10. “The kit consists of some ‘do it yourself’ activities for students to understand the concepts in science easily," said Sheela Mallya, school principal.

While private schools managed to innovate, municipal schools in Mumbai, which are struggling to get students to attend online classes, have a different set of troubles.

“Every three months or so, we take our students on field trips to Vidnyan Bhavan in Sion to show them various models in science. Students also get hands-on learning experience as there are several interactive models. This year, however, we could not do any of that. Some of our students are unavailable for online classes too. So, our teachers try to send them short videos of basic experiments which they can watch. We have also distributed them worksheets through their parents," said Suman Patil, principal at Ayodhya Nagar Municipal School in Chembur.

Meanwhile, engineering and technology institutes, including Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), have adjusted their curriculum and deferred all laboratory courses that require physical presence to the next semester. Only computer-based practical classes are being conducted but with limited success, said teachers.

Engineering colleges are adopting animations and virtual lab simulations as teaching aids. “In some cases (very few), animations or demonstrations are being used [to teach concepts]. In a regular semester, these animations are used in addition to hardware laboratories with live experiments. While these videos help, they are not very effective for learning remotely, especially if students are not getting hands-on experience," said Shantanu Roy, dean, academics, IIT-Delhi.

Virtual labs is an initiative of the ministry of education, government of India, to provide remote-access to labs in various disciplines of science and engineering. Teachers said that while the labs have aided instruction, they could not replicate actual experience of a lab.

“In general, in engineering and sciences, a lot of learning happens in laboratories by physically doing experiments. It is difficult to replicate that experience online," said Roy.

Connectivity is just one of the challenges in teaching online, said Varun Bhalerao, assistant professor at the department of Physics at IIT-Bombay. “It’s important to have a good rapport with the students and understand their situation, and decide how busy to keep them," he said. Bhalerao heads a team of researchers working on Growth India—the country’s first fully-robotic telescope.

“There was no point pining for a lab that you could not visit. The only solution to this was to redefine our goals," wrote Bhalerao in a recent article in a series titled ‘Academics Post Covid-19’ hosted by the Indian Academy of Sciences. The solution was to shift focus to long-term activities such as wrapping up ‘almost complete’ papers and reading review articles.

“We shifted the focus of every group member from their primary project to a closely aligned data analysis project," said Bhalerao in the article.

While teachers are rising up to the challenge, students face a myriad of difficulties ranging from lack of connectivity, poor infrastructure and absence of peer groups.

Usually, videos, animations and simulations are used as auxiliary tools to live teaching, which is the primary mode of instruction. “This semester, the primary mode of instruction is missing and only auxiliary tools are available to us. Lectures are pre-recorded and circulated," said Pranav Jeevan P, a PhD scholar from IIT-Bombay.

“For researchers, it is the environment around us that matters the most while doing research work. Usually, we work in isolated academic spaces with very little distractions. That safe space is missing," he added.

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