When it comes to teaching science courses online, colleges are getting creative. Institutions are using virtual reality programs to immerse students in laboratory simulations. They’re also mailing lab kits to students’ homes, enabling them to dissect cadavers on their kitchen tables, complete with whole specimens of sharks, birds and snakes, plus that old classic, frogs.
But for very good reasons, there’s still a limit to the kind of hands-on science coursework that colleges can, ahem, deliver remotely.
“USPS will probably kill us if we try to mail sulfuric acid,” says Ara Austin, a clinical assistant professor and senior director of online engagement and strategic initiatives at Arizona State University (ASU).
That logistical hurdle has prevented colleges from offering full online degree programs in core science subjects like chemistry and biochemistry. After all, if a science student hasn’t spent time actually producing reactions in a lab, Austin says, “they’re probably not going to be taken seriously out in the public,” limiting their success in graduate school or in the job market. In fact, some medical schools even refuse to consider admitting students with online coursework or degrees.
But ASU has an explicit mission to help more people access higher education — including, Austin says, students from low-income families and students from underrepresented minority groups. One strategy for doing that is investing in online degree programs. These options can make college more affordable and flexible, which often appeals to people who are older than age 25. Some of these adult students enroll in online programs having never gone to college before, but for many others it’s their second or third try, because they previously left higher education without earning a degree, either for financial or personal reasons.
Adult students who enroll in online programs bring rich life experience to the virtual classroom, Austin says. They’re Navy SEALs, ballerinas, PTA presidents, parents, lab technicians, former finance professionals and Starbucks baristas. And, Austin adds, “They have big goals for themselves, just as much as on-campus students do.”
“Yet how we devised the traditional education system, they can’t be accepted the way they are. Online education opens the door to be inclusive,” Austin says. “They are courageous to return to school. All we have to do is be willing to change a little bit — be accommodating, just a little bit.”
And so starting around 2016, academic leaders in the university’s School of Molecular Sciences decided to experiment with offering rigorous biochemistry programs to remote students — complete with hands-on lab experiences.
The faculty had a hypothesis: If students who enroll in college online could learn under real lab conditions, then they could develop into strong scientists, ready to do advanced research and pursue careers in, say, biotechnology or medicine. They could succeed in STEM jobs that tend to pay well in industries that are facing pressure to increase the diversity of their workforces.
ASU couldn’t test this theory by delivering chemicals to students who study online. But what if instead the university brought remote students to the chemicals — and to campus?
In 2018, back when Austin had just earned her Ph.D. in chemical education from ASU, she accepted a new role as managing director of online programs at the university. She was asked to modify the experiments from ASU’s in-person, semester-long biochemistry lab into a condensed experience that remote students could tackle in just a few days.
For this model to work, she also had to devise a plan for bringing dozens of students who typically study online to campus in Arizona.
“OK, sure, this is a challenge,” Austin recalls thinking. “No one has done it before.”
‘A Sense of Community’
Meanwhile, more than 2,000 miles away from where Austin was hard at work reinventing the chemistry lab, a young Marine was rethinking her trajectory.
In 2018, Nicola Osgood was serving on active duty and considering resuming the higher education she had paused years before. She had enrolled at ASU right after high school, back in 2010. She took classes on campus and planned to major in psychology, but she didn’t really know what she wanted to do with her life.
At 17, she says, her motivation for being in college was not a hunger to learn new things.
“I was going,” she recalls, “because it’s the next thing you do.”
Feeling aimless, Osgood left ASU and joined the Marine Corps. During her military service, she took a couple of online courses through the for-profit University of Phoenix, an experience she didn’t like very much.
“It didn’t feel rigorous,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I was getting an education. If it’s just easy, what am I learning?”
Then one day, Osgood realized that she wanted to become a doctor. She researched which undergraduate degree could help her reach that goal. She decided to look for an online biochemistry program that she could tackle while still stationed in North Carolina for her military career — and one that would accommodate her personal life as a mother and the wife of a fellow Marine.
Her sleuthing brought her to an intriguing option offered by her old university, Arizona State.
Using tuition assistance and later benefits from the post-9/11 GI Bill, Osgood enrolled while still on active duty in 2018, taking virtual classes either part-time or full-time, depending on her military responsibilities. It felt different from her previous experience learning online, she says, because her ASU professors were more present during classes and in office hours, and their exams were proctored instead of open book.
She saw the same students over and over in her remote courses, which helped her to build ties with her classmates. To strengthen those bonds, Osgood even helped to found a club to advocate for and support ASU students studying science remotely.
“There was a lot more of a sense of community even though we weren’t there” in person, she says.
Running the Experiment
Back at ASU, Austin prepared all spring semester for her first cohort of online learners to travel to campus in summer 2018. She collected students’ immunization records. She negotiated a discounted rate for parking their cars on campus. She helped them figure out where to eat and where to stay.
“I became very good friends with the housing director at that time,” Austin quips.
And when 43 students finally arrived, Austin, along with two teaching assistants, led their organic chemistry lab. The unit had been condensed from a semester’s worth of coursework into a short, intensive sequence lasting just a few days. Austin and her colleagues designed the sequence using equivalency theory, the idea that learning experiences can yield comparable results without operating in identical ways.
“If experiences are robust and rich, they should result in similar or better outcomes,” Austin says. “All components that on-campus students finish, the online students finish as well.”
ASU’s in-person biochemistry lab for remote students takes five days to complete, while its two-semester organic chemistry labs take seven (sometimes broken up into two segments of three-and-a-half days each). Students work in campus laboratories from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with breaks for meals and review sessions. Then, after students leave campus and return home, they continue working on assignments related to the experiments they conducted in person.
It’s a model somewhat similar to an older style of hybrid learning, which predates the pandemic-era use of that term and is common to low-residency MBA and creative writing graduate programs designed for working adults. The format makes sense, Austin says, since many students studying online through Arizona State are in their late 20s or early 30s (although some are older) and have limited time available to spend away from their job and family obligations.
“Students are taking holidays to come to this,” Austin says. “We want to make sure we are using the students’ time effectively.”
In the five years since that first lab in summer 2018, those students have included people like Kristen Krip, who home-schooled her three children while studying biochemistry online through ASU. Krip had started community college after high school, but left and went on to work in retail and as a nanny. Later, she earned an English degree remotely from ASU with tuition support from a Pell Grant. Then, thinking that a science degree might yield career opportunities that were more promising, she decided to pursue a second bachelor’s online through ASU.
“First semester, I took chemistry. I remember being terrified,” Krip says. “I all but failed chemistry in high school. I said ‘This is going to go real badly’ to my husband.’”
Yet Krip did so well that she became a chemistry tutor for other students.
“I ended up learning really good study habits,” she says. “My daughter at the time was 2 or 3 years old. She was not sleeping well. Sometimes she was sleeping on my lap while I was doing schoolwork. It really taught me how to focus. It’s a unique skill for online students. We are doing all this work amidst our life. It’s not like we can go to a building and shut everything out and focus. We’re doing it where we are living.”
In order for Krip to travel to the ASU campus for her first lab sequence, she and her husband, who works as a high school teacher, had to figure out a schedule for dropping their kids off at different friends’ homes during the days Krip was away. She says the opportunity to work in the university’s lab was worth the effort required, though.
“I feel like the experience was absolutely transformative,” Krip says. “I remember feeling like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a scientist now.’”
Analyzing the Results
As Osgood — the Marine — continued her biochemistry studies online, her life moved on. She and her family moved to California. She left the military. The pandemic hit. She gave birth to her third child.
In summer 2021, while Osgood was still breastfeeding that baby, the time came for an experience she had long looked forward to: traveling to campus to learn in ASU’s laboratories.
With her family in tow, Osgood drove from California to her mother’s house in Phoenix. That became her home base for nearly two weeks straight of college organic chemistry and biochemistry labs — an unusually long session that the university offered that summer because the pandemic had canceled the previous year’s in-person labs.
Osgood’s days took on a new routine. In the mornings, she met classmates over coffee to discuss notes. After hours of lab work, she grabbed a quick lunch with her lab partner. Then it was back to the lab for a few more hours of experiments. Her favorite organic chemistry activity was making acetaminophen, the common pain killer, from component chemicals. Her batch, she notes, had both high yield and high purity.
In addition to completing coursework, Osgood appreciated the opportunity to meet her classmates — and especially her professors — in person. (Still, with the summer temperatures topping 100 degrees, she decided not to join fellow students for hikes in the Arizona desert.)
“We didn’t feel out of place, which was nice,” Osgood says of her time on campus. “That was a worry for some people, that we’d go there and feel weird. It felt natural. A big part of it is that we had this community.”
By the time Osgood completed her summer labs in 2021, the number of students participating had grown from about four dozen in 2018 to about 400, according to Austin.
“It’s hard to wrangle up hundreds of students,” she acknowledges. But, she adds, “It was so rewarding, because the online students are really unique.”
The growing popularity of these online science programs is one key marker of their success. Another is the results of a small study that Austin and her colleagues conducted, which found that online students who participate in the intensive summer labs performed as well as or better than their counterparts who participate in regular, semester-long versions when it comes to content knowledge, science identity and level of motivation.
A third sign of success is the fact that students enrolled in the online science programs are hungry for even deeper learning. They asked for opportunities to conduct research, the kind that doctorate programs look for among applicants. The timing worked well because the pandemic had prompted some professors to devise new ways to conduct studies remotely.
And so, in Austin’s current role in the dean’s office, she helps oversee a new program that connects online students with group-based projects designed to fit the demands of their personal lives. They’re using web cameras to observe honeybee colonies and the behavior of turkeys. They’re analyzing the properties of galaxies with data from telescopes. They’re studying photovoltaics using a remotely-operated scanning electron microscope.
Among the 190 research program participants from the fall 2022 cohort, Austin says, 74 percent are women, 41 percent identify as members of underrepresented minority groups and 57 percent are eligible for Pell Grants for students from low-income families. The average age of these students is 29.
Osgood helped to devise the effort’s name: the Online Undergraduate Research Scholars program — OURS for short. She pitched it because she wanted Arizona State to affirm that “online students are our students, too,” Austin says. “They’re not some second-class citizens like everyone else makes them feel.”
And as for the university’s original hypothesis, about turning remote students into scientists? Austin reports that many alumni of the online chemistry and biochemistry programs have gained acceptance into science graduate school and health professional school.
“That was a big win for us,” Austin says. “For the students too.”
Osgood, for instance, graduated summa cum laude from Arizona State University in August 2021. The next month, she started a job at a biotech and drug discovery company. In her daily work processing samples from drug clinical trials, she uses techniques that she learned during her summer labs on campus.
Her ultimate goal, she says, is “to use my knowledge and education to give back to society and help people.” As she pondered how to accomplish that, she faced a delightful dilemma. She recently applied to — and was accepted into — both a medical school and a doctorate program.
She chose to pursue a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biophysics.
“I can say very passionately that online education is not lesser just because it’s online education,” Osgood says. “What makes a difference is the school, the professors and the students themselves.”