Digging into online learning: Assistant professor sends custom lab kits to students across the U.S.

Digging into online learning: Assistant professor sends custom lab kits to students across the U.S.

By Caroline MosleyDepartment of Environmental Science
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Rivka Fidel, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Environmental Science, packs kits she designed for students in her online Introduction to Soil Science course.
Rivka Fidel, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Environmental Science, packs kits she designed for students in her online Introduction to Soil Science course.
Rivka Fidel, assistant professor of practice, Department of Environmental Science
Rivka Fidel, assistant professor of practice, Department of Environmental Science
The soil samples in Fidel's kits draw on over a decade of research and analysis by the faculty in the Department of Environmental Science.
The soil samples in Fidel's kits draw on over a decade of research and analysis by the faculty in the Department of Environmental Science.

The squish of earth between your toes is a special sensation. Nothing quite feels the same. So, it's unsurprising that teaching soil science virtually can present a big challenge.

A calculations-based course wouldn't replicate the fundamental component of incorporating your senses, explains Rivka Fidel, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Environmental Science.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced a quick adaptation to online learning, and laboratory courses are no exception. The development of a virtual laboratory course could take more than a year, so Fidel decided to create soil lab kits to send to her students all over the country for the fall 2020 semester.

"Science is an area where online learning hasn't developed as quickly because laboratories can be so difficult to develop," Fidel said. "I will be learning alongside my students on a week-by-week basis for this course."

Finding materials amid a pandemic

The kits include basic materials, including protective gear, lab equipment and soil samples, which students incorporate with a few common household items, such as plastic water bottles to function as funnels. 

While Fidel began creating a soil laboratory course for small Arizona Online classes, the pandemic meant that 80 students needed soil lab kits for her Introduction to Soil Science course within a few months. Since the class is part of the core curriculum for the department major, withdrawing the laboratory course was not an option. To be conducted in a live online format, the course has the option for a flex in-person format (with most students continuing to join remotely) if safety permits.

Using a list of learning goals, she contacted vendors and kit-packing companies all over the U.S. to find the right materials. This proved to be one of many hurdles, with the pandemic shuttering some vendors and draining the stocks of others.

After many phone conversations and dead ends, Fidel bought kit components piecemeal from various vendors and packed them with the help of volunteers.

The next step was providing the soil itself.

Curated soil + vinegar = bubbles

"There's a certain degree of messiness," Fidel says. "Soil is notoriously heterogeneous even within a small area, and it takes years of testing to find the right soil for teaching experiments."

Since students may not have easy access to soil – and even collected soil can vary widely – Fidel included a carefully curated suite of soils. The curation draws on over a decade of work by various departmental faculty and rigorous analysis. This ensures that all students see similar effects from experiments, such as the effervescence soil test.

Also known as the acid test, this experiment teaches new scientists about the alkaline minerals that affect soil pH, crucial for understanding plant growth. In this experiment, students add acid (vinegar) to soils with different amounts of calcite, an important alkaline – or high pH – mineral. Much like the common volcano experiment that uses baking soda and vinegar, the calcite reacts with vinegar and bubbles.

With the kits in transit, Fidel is preparing for the next hurdle: the successful execution of virtual experiments in the coming weeks.

"Even though this is very different, I am glad we can give our students a kind of hands-on environmental science lab experience to keep them on track and engaged," said Fidel.

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