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A couple of weeks ago there was a fire in my department. While it only directly affected one research lab, the whole building is currently closed due to safety reasons while the place is cleaned. The current timeline has the building closed for months (well into the fall semester).

We've already started to recover from the shock. Courses have been relocated, grad students near graduation have been sent to other institutions to finish their work and researchers have started to find friendly labs to work in.

However, we've been having problems with our undergraduate laboratory courses. These courses consist of three to five experiments, each of which takes several weeks to complete. The experiments require specialized equipment, which is now trapped in the building, and cannot be moved before the cleaning is complete. We are the only department in the university that has this specific equipment.

We are currently at a loss about what do to with the students that were taking these courses. Some options that have been proposed are:

  1. Give everyone an incomplete.

While this would seem logical, since the students will end up with only half of the course material, the courses are both a requisite to graduation and usually taken in the final year. This means that we would be pushing the graduation of many of our students. Additionally, we would not be able to handle the doubled demand for the courses when we can give the again.

  1. Try to complete the experiments in other departments

Another department at our university has some labs that run somewhat similar experiments. However, they would not be available for at least two more weeks (when their students are expected to finish their courses). By that time the semester will have less than a month left, not enough time to fully complete the remaining experiments. To do this, we would have to design new experiments that attempt to have the same teaching value and that can be completed in the new labs in limited time. Some of the professors running the lab courses are understandably reluctant to do this at short notice. Additionally, some of the experiments are pretty much unique to our department, so that it might be impossible to do them at the other labs.

  1. Give the students experimental data to analyze

My preferred option is to give the students experimental data, and have the students analyze it and file reports as if they had actually run the experiments. However, some professors argue that this would betray the point of the laboratories, which are meant to focus on the experimentation.

  1. Stop the courses and give everyone a grade based on the work completed so far

Some professors prefer the idea of just stopping the courses as they stand, and basing the grades on the work the students have completed so far. However, this is difficult since the labs are run in groups, and different groups have managed to complete differing amounts of work. Additionally, this is likely to affect students grades negatively, since historically their grades are boosted by the final exam, which they would not take in this situation. Additionally, I don't see how this is better than option 3, since stopping the course midway also leaves unmet several course objectives.

Are there really no better alternatives? Is there some way to allow the students to complete the lab courses without compromising its objectives?

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    Wow, what a difficult situation! Personally, I agree with your assessment that option #3 is the least-bad from a pedagogical point of view. – jakebeal Apr 6 '16 at 3:06
  • I think #1 is a non-starter - the fire is more or less an act of god, and punishing the students for it seems unjust. #2 may be doable (but it doesn't sound likely in your circumstances). #3 is decent, as is #4. I think most accreditation boards (or those I've dealt with in the US) would be fairly amenable to some university accommodation for unusual circumstances like this, so the object would be to get the students some feel for experiments (and their problems!). – Jon Custer Apr 6 '16 at 16:33
  • @jakebeal Yes, it has been a true mess. Everyone's main worry has been with the research labs, since they will likely be locked out of their labs for months. This has unfourtanetely put these issues with the labs relegated, and now we don't have much time to decide. – Sciencertobe Apr 6 '16 at 18:24
  • @JonCuster Yeah fortunately we aren't expecting much trouble with accreditation. – Sciencertobe Apr 6 '16 at 18:26
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    @Sciencertobe - as another burden to consider, not related to this question or answer at all... Soon you should start considering what it will take to reoccupy and restart the lab spaces. Since there was a fire it seems unlikely that everything was shut down safely and securely so you will be going back in to an undefined safety scenario. Think hard, and good luck. – Jon Custer Apr 6 '16 at 18:55
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As an experimentalist myself, I feel strongly that that hands-on part of laboratory is an important part of the course, but ...

  • The students have presumably already done some of the planned hands on work, so option #3 would not be a total loss on this front.

  • Analysis of data is not generally the same as classroom problems, and is also an important part of the laboratory experience.

Toward that end I would suggest

  1. Investigating option #2 vigorously in hopes of recreating or substituting for some part of the hands-on work that would otherwise be lost. Try to get all the students one more hands-on experience if at all possible.

  2. Use option #3 to address the analysis skill you were hoping to teach. Give them not only the data, but the equipment, methods and technique parts of lab reports from previous students (be sure to get permission where this might be needed).

  3. Use a library assignment to get them thinking about the skills they are not practicing. Perhaps assign them each to report (either a oral presentation or a paper) on the methods used to perform [some common analysis in your field] when that technique was new and the equipment was not as forgiving as today.

And declare it the best you can do under the circumstances.

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