Campus News

Revamped safety practices allow students to gain lab, professional experience

A student working in a chemistry lab.

A student works in a chemistry lab. The Department of Chemistry is providing multiple sections of four general chemistry labs to roughly 1,560 students who meet in person every other week. Students learn remotely during off weeks. Another 715 students are fully remote. ​Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published October 21, 2020

“Lab and clinical work is fundamental to the education and professional development of thousands of students here at UB. ”
Graham Hammill, vice provost for educational affairs and dean
Graduate School

UB has answered a series of challenges this year to safely deliver a quality learning and campus experience to students amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Among those successes: providing in-person lab and clinical courses to thousands of UB students.

Labs are the foundation of many programs and majors, providing an environment where students learn the fundamentals of research, as well as basic skills of science, that they later put into practice in the workplace. Clinical courses, which are held at both on- and off-campus sites, are crucial for students to obtain professional licensure for professional degree programs and their post-collegiate careers.

From gross anatomy courses to the School of Law’s Clinical Legal Education program where students practice under supervising attorneys, UB students are gaining professional experience under health guidelines for clinical and practical experiences implemented by the university in conjunction with the Erie County Department of Health.

“Lab and clinical work is fundamental to the education and professional development of thousands of students here at UB. We’re providing this necessary in-person instruction, while ensuring the health and safety of students and employees, because it’s part of our educational mission as a leading public research university,” says Graham Hammill, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Graduate School.

In adherence to UB’s health and safety guidelines, all programs require students to wear masks, socially distance, frequently wash their hands, and sanitize equipment and furniture after use. To allow students to properly social distance, most programs have opened additional sessions for enrollment and made extra classrooms available for use. Several labs and clinical courses will be completed prior to Thanksgiving break.

Lab techniques boosted by online learning

Students enrolled in lab-intensive programs in the College of Arts and Sciences have found success with a blend of in-person and remote learning.

The Department of Chemistry, for example, is providing multiple sections of four general chemistry labs (100-level courses) to roughly 1,560 students who meet in person every other week. Students learn remotely during off weeks. Another 715 students are fully remote. ​

These courses have also employed a new lab platform that allows a seamless transition between in-person and virtual learning. 

This approach has enabled the department to reduce the number of students in labs by at least 50%, says Rachel Ventura, director of the General Chemistry Laboratory. Other safety measures include physically distanced workstations, requiring all assignments to be submitted online instead of by paper, and holding office hours through videoconferencing.

The Department of Biological Sciences bolstered its remote learning materials to supplement — or in some cases replace — in-person education normally conducted in labs.

Genetics Laboratory, which has nearly 170 enrolled students, moved all quizzes, assessments and lab reports online.

The department reformatted other courses to support remote learning by recording hours of video on lab procedures, refining the process to submit homework online and improving techniques for Zoom interaction. Nearly 1,300 biology students enrolled in these courses have the option to learn in person or fully complete the lab online.

“It was clear early on that we had to be prepared for what would happen if someone got COVID or the campus shut down for two weeks or longer,” says Jessica Poulin, clinical associate professor of biological sciences. “It helped that we had to run the labs online this summer with no ability to even come to campus to make videos. We worked really hard on the online plan knowing we would likely have to convert to fully online at any time. We knew we needed to be flexible for students who could not come back to campus.”

In the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, administrators added an extra session to the gross anatomy lab. This allowed the school to have 90 physically distanced students in the lab instead of the usual 180.

“With gross anatomy, there really is no substitute for in-person learning. Our students are extremely happy to be in the lab,” says Ray Dannenhoffer, associate dean for support services in the Jacobs School.

Nursing student performing a health assessment in a clinic setting.

A nursing student performs a health assessment in a clinical setting. Photo: Douglas Levere

Real-world experience without compromising safety

In the event the university needs to implement a 14-day pause of in-person instruction if on-campus active COVID-19 cases exceed limits set by the New York State Department of Health, in-person clinical courses will continue, as they are necessary to fulfill professional licensure requirements. Most in-person labs will meet on campus, too — more information is available from individual academic departments.

Safety is the primary focus for each school. In addition to the Daily Health Check, the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences developed a separate health survey for students to complete prior to and during off-site clinical rotations.

Nearly 500 students in the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences, 400 students in the Jacobs School, 195 students in the School of Nursing, and many students in the School of Public Health and Health Professions and the School of Dental Medicine are engaged in clinical rotations at Western New York hospitals and other health care sites across the region.

Operating an on-campus clinic that hosts up to 30,000 patient visits each year, the School of Dental Medicine is in a unique position of needing to both safely educate its 500 students engaged in clinical rotations, as well as care for patients.

Among the various changes implemented by the school to increase safety are a revamped HVAC system that vastly improved air cleaning and flow, a reduction in dental chairs and expanded clinic hours, and waiting 15 minutes after appointments for aerosol droplets to settle before disinfecting treatment spaces.

“Our clinics were enabled to safely return to treating patients as a result of the efforts of our task force, great support from the students, staff and faculty at the School of Dental Medicine, and collaboration with university partners,” says Joseph E. Gambacorta, associate dean for clinical affairs in the School of Dental Medicine.