Be Brief: Lab

Window into large lab with sign that reads "UO Lab, Unit Operations Laboratory".
Window into large lab with sign that reads "UO Lab, Unit Operations Laboratory".
The Unit Operations Lab, or UO Lab, is a real-world lab space for chemical engineering students.

If the Unit Operations Lab can navigate a pandemic, then we all can. In our Be Brief format, we explore the challenges and adaptations of lab courses.

Teaching labs is what we do. More than 95% of Michigan Technological University undergrads are enrolled as science, technology, engineering and math majors. We can talk a lot about STEM, but at the end of the day, lab experiences are a crucial part of education. And the pandemic has disrupted lab courses as much as lectures and research.

Play Safety First: Huskies in the Unit Operations Lab video
Preview image for Safety First: Huskies in the Unit Operations Lab video

6,500 square feet of industrial engineering. The Unit Operations Lab is a three-story laboratory where upper-level chemical engineering students learn to run experiments like they’re on the job. Safety always comes first — face coverings and physical distancing simply joined the existing requirement for hard hats, steel-toe boots, safety glasses and following standard operating procedures.

The Michigan Tech campus has many lab spaces. One in particular reveals the challenges and successes of pandemic-era labs. Tech’s Unit Operations Lab (UO Lab) is an industry-scale training space for chemical engineers. There are no kitchen table versions of these lab experiments, and if you think Zoom flattens meetings, try demonstrating how to use a three-story distillation column virtually. The show — or rather the pilot plant — must go on.

It comes down to safety. No doubt the most fundamental focus of any lab course, safety was heightened in the UO Lab before anyone heard of COVID-19. Physical distancing, face coverings and clean hands simply got added to the course’s existing requirements for hard hats, steel-toe boots, safety glasses and other personal protective equipment (PPE) and standard operating procedures. Students also cycled through the lab in smaller groups throughout the fall 2020 semester before Thanksgiving break, running experiments on the lab’s multistory solvent recovery unit as well as smaller liquid-liquid extraction, flow measurement, reaction kinetics and distillation experiments.

These adaptations are not unique to the UO Lab or Michigan Tech. The whole world is figuring out the dynamic balance between safety and productivity. As hard as it is, nothing can prepare students for careers in the real world like a real-world challenge.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, the University offers more than 125 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.