By Dr. Bjorn Mercer  |  11/05/2021

rewarding career path

Until recently, it wasn’t possible to pursue a science degree online, largely because of the lab requirement. In this episode, Dr. Danny Welsch talks about how his science faculty got creative and figured out how to deliver the same science education in an innovative way by designing lab kits and instrumentation kits that are mailed to students so they can conduct experiments at home. Learn how these courses also use online resources like libraries of microscopic images and access to simulation labs so students can conduct virtual experiments. Hear how STEM faculty designed the first fully online organic chemistry program as well as courses in physics, astronomy, meteorology, geology, with plans to launch a fully online electrical engineering program and fully online environmental engineering program. Learn about the exciting challenges and benefits of making science education available and accessible to anyone who has an internet connection.


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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Danny Welsch, interim Dean in the  School of STEM. And today we’re talking about the challenges and opportunities of online STEM education. Welcome, Danny.

Dr. Danny Welsch: I’m glad to be here, Bjorn. Thanks.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Love having you back. So let’s jump into the first question. What is online education?

Dr. Danny Welsch: So online education is something that a lot of people think they are familiar with and turns out they’re probably not. Online education is something that probably was a niche market up to a year and a half ago when COVID hit, and then all of a sudden, everything became online education.

Our vision of online and education is a little bit different. We’re not really trying to recreate the traditional college model. What we’re really trying to do is teach students ideas and concepts. We start really at the same place that any educational model starts with, what do we want our students to learn? And then we find unique ways to make sure that they meet those outcomes, using a different set of tools than traditional educators.

So that’s really what online learning is. We’re teaching students the same types of ideas and concepts, basically the same stuff, but we’re just doing it in a different way that isn’t necessarily bound by some of the typical constraints of space and time and safety, cost. There’s a lot of ways that we can be more flexible on a lot of those things. So online education is not just meeting via Zoom. It is meeting outcomes, but in different, unique ways than a lot of people are familiar with.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Thank you for that great explanation. And it really makes me think of when COVID first started, of course, the world, especially our area of the world, the U.S. was greatly affected by COVID and education was especially affected.

So I really observed two ways in which education was changed, which is elementary education, my kids. And also I have a friend who teaches at the local university. His class just went online. Basically just took everything and just put it online. Still had synchronous events. And then with my kids, when I watched them try to do online education, same thing. It just went online. And I really like how you said that it tries to accomplish… Did you say different things?

Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. I mean, the same basic outcomes we want students to learn. So let’s say that we have a chemistry class and you have a chemistry class at Arizona State that’s face to face, and we have a chemistry class that’s online. Our students are essentially going to learn the same things. In fact, the American Chemical Society says what a student who’s taking Chem 1, General Chemistry 1 has to learn. So we’re meeting those same outcomes, but we’re using a different set of tools. We’re doing it in a different way.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And I’m glad you said that because a lot of online education, the nuts and bolts, the foundation is supported by instructional design. So in good instructional design will have course learning outcomes, learning outcomes course objectives, which varies five to six, seven different ones per course, which students are supposed to learn, and then you drill down into putting on the weekly learning objectives. And those are what students are supposed to learn. And just like you said, they occur in in-person classes and online, and everybody has to learn those. So can you describe how science education has been done traditionally specifically with labs?

Dr. Danny Welsch: It’s interesting because science education has essentially been done more or less the same way for 300 years. So, Bjorn, when you were in college as an undergrad, I’m assuming you took a general education science course or a couple, maybe?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I took Geology as a lab.

Dr. Danny Welsch: Okay. So what was that lab like?

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: We touched the rocks. We tasted the rocks. It was a really interesting and even today, even though I would say one of my hobbies is not geology, it is very, very interesting how you can see the history of the earth via layers.

Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. So your geology courses sounds very similar to the way I learned geology as an undergraduate together with biology and chemistry and physics, and a lot of the other lab courses that I ended up taking. And you essentially walk into a room, you handle things, you do the science that you’re actually learning.

And that is, by and large, the way things have been done traditionally from a science education perspective forever. So we’re turning that on its head a little bit. We’re approaching it from a different perspective. As I mentioned before, we’re really trying to meet the same goals. We want students to come out of those lab experiences with an appreciation for science and appreciation for the content, but really the goal of a lab is an appreciation for the techniques. What do you actually have to do to understand science, to do science, to get data, to make hypotheses, to perform observations, and to come up with conclusions? That’s really the objective that we’re trying to meet in almost any lab science course. Be it chemistry, physics, biology, geology, meteorology, astronomy, oceanography, they all have lab sciences.

So we start with that same outcomes-based approach, but we get there with a couple of different methods. So if you think about a traditional chemistry lab, it’s like the potions classroom from “Harry Potter.” There’s test tubes and beakers and sometimes there’s things that are smoking and there’s fire involved. There’s people with goggles. And we do a lot of that same stuff, but, of course, we do it in a different way.

So, we start with an outcomes-based approach. What do we want students to learn? Well, we want a student to learn the difference between an acid and a base, for example. And there’s a pretty standard set of experiments that you can do in a traditional chemistry lab to help teach the difference between an acid and a base.

And we can do those same experiments, but in a different way. So a couple of the different tools or flavors of labs that we use, we’ll start with the simplest and move up to the most complicated. And it might be counterintuitive because the simplest for us might sound like the most complicated in a traditional setting, but the simplest way for us to teach some of this stuff is to use a virtual or a simulation lab.

And this is essentially where it’s a lot like a video game. We have tools where students—and this is all digital, it’s all on your computer and some of it is even available using virtual reality, although we haven’t quite moved that into that for everyone. You virtually walk into a lab, you virtually put on your apron, you put on your goggles, you take instruments off of a virtual shelf. It’s a lot like a video game. You can actually use an Xbox controller to perform some of these manipulations in some of the tools that we have. So that is a virtual or a simulation lab.

Another tool that we use is a lab kit. And now we’re getting into things that are a little bit more familiar. We actually ship students glassware, instruments, chemicals, safety equipment, and we have them go through the labs. Sometimes this is referred to as kitchen table chemistry or kitchen-sink chemistry, because the students are actually doing this themselves in their house, essentially doing the same thing that you would do in traditional lab.

We often have to make some tweaks and make some changes to make sure that A) it’s safe, and B) it’s something you can ship in the mail, and C) we don’t have any disposal problems, which has actually proven to be an issue with some of our organic chemistry labs, which are new.

We really had to work hard to design those lab kits so that students could dispose of the chemicals we send them because organic chemistry typically uses some things that you can’t just flush down the drain. So lab kits are another tool that we use.

We also use digital instrumentation. So in any science, the collection of data is really critical. If you’re not collecting data well, you can’t really use that data for anything. And the instrumentation that students use in a traditional college-based lab setting is very similar to what we’re actually able to ship them.

So some of our students receive a suite of digital instruments where it looks like a big iPod, and they’re able to plug in sensors to it and perform experiments that way. And these are our students who are seeking a degree in science. As they move through their degree, they accumulate additional instruments that plug into this unit, and then by the time they get to their end of their degree program, they have a whole suite of instrumentation that they can use to craft a really interesting capstone project.

Their toolbox has grown and it’s been expanded as they move through their program. So the digital instrumentation is actually really great because the cost of it is coming down rapidly. In fact, we’re starting to move to a model where you don’t even need that glorified iPad, everything connects right to your cell phone through Bluetooth, and you just need an app that’s free. So that’s really brought the cost down and it’s made it much more approachable.

And finally, we use hybrid labs. So if you think about microscopes, microscopes are critical to science, but they’re also really expensive and they’re fragile. So we’re not shipping microscopes to all of our students. There are large libraries of microscopic images, what we call histology, which is tissue samples, microscopic tissue samples, online that you can use.

So if we’re doing an experiment in anatomy and physiology course, you can ship the students, let’s say a cow’s heart, which we do actually, and then they perform a dissection on that cow’s heart. But of course, our students don’t have microscopes. So they can’t actually see that cow heart tissue in a microscopic sense themselves because they don’t have that microscope, but we can then shift the modality from a lab kit where they’re actually handling a preserved cow’s heart into the online space where they’re now looking at prepared slides to get the same experience. So that was what we would consider a hybrid lab.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So we have a lot of different ways to approach lab science, where students are essentially learning the same things, but using a different set of tools.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer:

And I love that you described that as a different set of tools because it is, and they’re all valid and they’re all very interesting. I like how you talked about the digital instrumentation, how it’s getting more affordable and, well, essentially cheaper as time goes on. Now, as far as the courses at APU, are there any courses that you’re particularly proud of as far as the lab kits or digital instrumentations or hybrid labs?

Dr. Danny Welsch: Sure. Yeah. So one of the things that I really like about my job is it lets me be creative in designing ways to deliver this content. And as a scientist, you don’t often think about creativity. A lot of scientists are creative people by nature, but not necessarily in the way they perform science.

So this is what I think is really exciting and fascinating is finding ways to break that mold of the 300-year tradition of teaching science into something new. So two types of courses where we’ve done that are our human anatomy and physiology courses and our organic chemistry courses.

I’ll start with human anatomy and physiology. And I’ve already hinted on the way we do this previously, but we do ship our students a box of body parts, which sounds a little creepy, but we have a suite of courses in anatomy and physiology where students receive lab kits that contain sheep’s eyes, cow hearts, cow brains.

It sounds a little morbid, but the students actually really love this. And this is all preserved and it’s very safe, and the students perform dissections in much the same way that they would in the traditional classroom, but they’re doing it in their kitchen or in their barracks. We actually have designed this lab kit with a partner. So it doesn’t even need refrigeration. So if that’s not an option for students, they can still take that course and be successful in the lab.

And then we do extend that learning into the digital space as well. Obviously human cadavers are not something that our students are going to have access to, but there are some incredible digital human cadaver simulators out there on the web and we use one of them as part of that suite of courses. It’s actually really, really fascinating. I can get lost for hours, just playing with that simulation.

It’s just layer upon layer upon layer. Whatever you want to see, you can just search for it and it’ll take you right there and it really is very similar.

Another really good example and one that is more recent is our organic chemistry sequence. I believe we are the only university in the country right now to offer a fully online organic chemistry sequence. That’s Organic Chemistry 1 and Organic Chemistry 2.

And we do that because we worked very closely with a development partner to provide lab kits that we could ship to students that were going to allow them to meet the outcomes they need to meet in order to be successful in an organic chemistry class, but that was safe to ship, safe to dispose of, and safe to perform experiments on almost anywhere in the world.

So that’s actually something that I’m particularly proud of. We have a great team that worked really hard to put that kit together to come up with experiments that were going to meet those outcomes, and it has really only been running for a couple of months and, so far, the reception has been very, very positive.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s absolutely wonderful, especially organic chemistry. Having never taken organic chemistry, the word on the street is that it’s extremely difficult.

Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah, it can be. The concepts are difficult. A lot of people who take chemistry and do well have the ability to think spatially because chemistry is essentially about how molecules interact with each other. So if you can envision those molecules and envision how they react and how they interact and how they intersect, you can do pretty well.

When people get to organic chemistry, that can become challenging because those molecules get really complex and they interact in odd ways. So it is a very difficult course. Actually, when I was in undergrad, organic chemistry was five credits. In a lot of places, it’s still five credits. Our version is four credits because most schools now have it at four credits, but it’s just a tremendous amount of work. It is a lot more lab work than traditional chemistry courses. Traditional chemistry course, you might meet once or twice a week for a lab, traditional organic chemistry class is two to the three times a week and the lab is often five hours because it takes a while to perform those experiments. So it is a lot of work. It’s also a big time commitment.

A lot of students at traditional universities would take organic chemistry in the summer at a local community college. Because of that time commitment, it’s actually physically hard to squeeze it into your schedule. And we’re actually seeing a lot of students coming to us to take it for that reason, because you don’t have that time constraint. As long as you have the time somewhere in your life to complete this course, you could do that. We don’t have synchronous sessions where we require students to be online for the course between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon or something like that.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that it’s a great convenience for the students. I also like that you talked about the anatomy and physiology in the students that you do send students some tissue essentially. And it made me think of my wife’s experience in her master’s level anatomy and physiology course, where they did have the dissect actual humans who had passed and then donated their bodies to science and education.

And besides the smell, of course, she said, one of the weird things is that everything, all the tissues were gray. So all of the textbooks and all of the everything that she was learning from, they’re beautifully color coded. So I see the muscles and the veins and the arteries and the ligaments, and then when you actually looked at the actual bodies, it was much more difficult to actually figure out what you were looking at.

Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. Anatomic drawing is amazing. And one of the fascinating things about anatomy and physiology textbooks is they all use the same set of drawings because there’s really only one or two complete sets of anatomic drawings in the world and they’ve been around for a very long time. They get updated from time to time, but the base set of those drawings is pretty old and pretty standardized and really artistically very beautiful.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So this brings us to what are the challenges of online STEM education?

Dr. Danny Welsch: Yeah. So there’s always going to be challenges whenever you make big fundamental changes to the way you do something. One of the biggest challenges that we have is getting students exposure in a real-world, hands-on way to all the instrumentation that they might need. That’s actually not as big of a challenge as you might think, but here’s an example.

We could probably the never have a full chemistry degree. And the main reason for that is a big part of an actual chemistry degree is a course in instrumental techniques or analytical chemistry or analytical techniques where you’re using instrumentation that is very large, very rare. Rare from a sense that it’s not something people are going to have in their house, but also very expensive. An example is ICP-MS, Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry. Obviously not something that everyone is going to have access to and it’s not something that really exists in a form that we can ship to students. Not everything is able to be reproduced in a way that we can deliver in a fully online modality.

So there has to just be limitations to what we can do, and we have to recognize that and accept it, or try and put on our creative scientist hats and find a way to work around it. But so far, we’ve not been able to find a way to work around some of those issues.

Another challenge is sometimes it can be hard to demonstrate some of the techniques. As an example, titration. Titration is where you’re putting very small amounts of a liquid into another liquid using a thing called a pipette. And there are some tricks to really doing that right. And it can be difficult to explain those tricks to someone without having their fingers directly on that instrument. But that is definitely something that we can overcome and video, especially some high-resolution video, has really come a long way to helping us there.

Collaboration, it can be a little bit difficult for people to get a sense of working in a team to solve problems together. Although the collaboration tools that are available to students and really to anyone nationwide now are so extensive, that that problem is not as vast as it once was.

Everyone is expected to know how to collaborate digitally now. So even though our students are not necessarily able to collaborate face-to-face, they’re coming out of all of our courses with digital collaboration skills, which are at least as valuable as face-to-face collaboration skills at this point.

Probably one of the biggest challenges is just tradition. The American Chemical Society is the largest group of chemists in the nation, in the world, really, and for the longest time, they had a policy that was in opposition to online chemistry labs. And they didn’t really have a solid grounding as to say why that policy existed. It was really tradition.

You had a lot of chemists saying, “Oh, well, I learned chemistry in a lab. Therefore, that must be the only way that our students now can learn chemistry.” And that has actually stood for a long time, but interestingly, it’s starting to change. We’re starting to see the tradition of teaching chemistry and teaching science in a face-to-face lab fall.

The American Chemical Society and chemistry is one of the last to fall, but it’s being driven largely by younger members who are really under pressure from their university administration. University administrators are saying, “Hey, can we do this online as a cost-savings measure?” And then especially with COVID, it was a safety measure. We can’t have all these students to get other in a classroom, so we have to put this content online quick, go out and find a way to do it. And by and large, people found that it was possible, it was successful, and in some cases, it was more accessible to students who actually preferred it. So the tradition of traditional labs for science is starting to fall.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I like in the challenges, you talked about tradition and collaboration. And tradition, especially with online education, tradition has paused or slowed down online education for many years, but I think at this point, many things are changing and a lot of the traditions are changing and that’s not always a bad thing.

And I like that you talked about collaboration too, because with traditional college-aged students, and traditional is not traditional anymore, much as typical you could say, where a lot of the students here at APUS, they’re not 18 to 22. So they’ve had years and sometimes decade or decades of collaborating.

So collaborating for them is second nature versus if you are teaching 18 to 22 year olds. And when I was a 19 year old, I don’t know if my collaboration skills were that great. So learning collaboration at that age, very important. For a lot of working adults who are also working hard to get their online degrees, it’s just part of their life. It’s part of their job that they have. Now, what are some of the opportunities of online STEM education?

Dr. Danny Welsch: The opportunities are where I get excited, because I think accessibility is a really big one. Let’s say that you are a student who lives in rural Montana and you don’t have a university campus within 100 miles of your house and yet you really want to be an electrical engineer. Up until a couple years ago, your options were pretty limited. But now, we have a fully online electrical engineering program. We’re getting ready to launch a fully online environmental engineering program. We have courses in chemistry, physics, astronomy, meteorology, geology, all of which are available to anyone with an internet connection. So accessibility is one of the biggest opportunities. We’re making science education available to anyone that has an internet connection. We’re no longer really limited by proximity to a university campus or the ability to go and live at a university. So that’s one that I think is really exciting.

Another one is safety. So when I was an undergrad, I was really into caving and I still am. I do a lot of caving, but I had really just gotten into caving as an undergrad, and one of the old timers in my caving group was still using an an acetylene lamp, where you put calcium carbide in a chamber in the bottom of the lamp, and then there’s a water chamber above and that water drips very slowly onto that calcium carbide and produces acetylene gas, which burns and it’s incredibly bright flame and it is fantastic as a caving light.

And he was using that and I was really interested in that from a scientific perspective. So I went to my chemistry professor and I asked him about that reaction. And the best that he could do, because the production of acetylene is pretty dangerous because it’s highly flammable, the best that he could do was map out that equation on the board and show me how that reaction worked, which stuck with me, but wasn’t terribly exciting. I wanted to actually do it. I wanted to get some acetylene, I wanted to drip some water on it. I wanted to create fire, because I was an undergrad, blowing stuff up is always fun.

Our students can actually do that. We have a virtual chemistry lab that gives them the ability to perform experiments that allow their creativity to run wild. As long as the chemicals that are needed to perform the experiment are in the database, which many of them are, they can actually create their own experiments. Let’s say you were in a traditional chemistry lab, you walked in, you put a bunch of calcium carbine in a beaker, you dropped in some water and then you threw in a match. You’re going to create a pretty big explosion. It’s going to be a mess. You’re going to get yourself in a lot of trouble and maybe get hurt. So there’s obviously a safety concern there.

But you can do that digitally. And the digital product of that could still be a big mess. You could create a digital explosion that is quite large and it might even show you damage to the lab. You’re not hurting anybody. You’re not hurting yourself. You’re not costing anyone any money.

So it allows students to follow their creativity because it’s a simulation and not the real world. It’s an extreme example, but we test nuclear weapons through simulation now. We haven’t set off an above-ground or even a below-ground nuclear weapon in decades because it’s more effective and definitely safer to test them just through mathematical simulations. So that’s the way a lot of things are moving.

Another example of where we have an opportunity is cost. And cost is really what drove the American Chemical Society to finally warm slightly to online labs. It’s expensive to operate a hands-on lab, a traditional face-to-face lab environment. That space is expensive to build, the staff that you need to maintain and prepare those labs are expensive, and the chemicals and consumables for those labs are expensive. Digital solutions often end up being a lot less expensive, especially at scale.

And then the last one as an opportunity is really time. There’s a lot of experiments that students would find for interesting that would take a long time to perform. In a traditional face-to-face lab setting, you have to be out. You may got another class coming in in two hours. So you only have so long to perform those labs and then you have to vacate that space. But much like the safety issue, we don’t have those constraints. Students can follow their curiosity. If they want to see how a reaction plays out over a couple of days, they can do that. So cost, safety, time, these are all things that are freed up primarily by a transition from a traditional face-to-face lab experience to an online one.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love all those opportunities because, honestly, they are opportunities and with technology, there’s so many amazing resources that we now have. And like you said, that they are safer and as long as you are focused and obviously engaged in your subject, you will be interested. Much like you talked about with the anatomy and going through and really examining it, these are just absolutely wonderful resources for online STEM education. So at this point, any final words?

Dr. Danny Welsch: So COVID was terrible in a number of respects and continues to be, but one of the things that it did is create a broad acceptance of online education across a bunch of disciplines, including science. And it wasn’t necessarily because people wanted to go that direction, it was because they had to.

And this will translate into expanded opportunities, especially in K-12 science where budgets are even tighter. I think we can take a lot of the things that we here at the university have been doing for some time and expand into opportunities for K-12 educators to deliver online lab science content to students everywhere where you don’t have these limitations of cost, time, space, safety. It’s going to provide a lot of opportunities for a lot of students and I think it’s particularly exciting.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: So today, we’re speaking with Dr. Danny Welsch about challenges and opportunities of online STEM education. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and thank you for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Bjorn Mercer

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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