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STEM instructors reflect on lessons learned from past virtual semesters

Instructors discuss changes to fieldwork, labs, course exams for in-person classes

After several semesters of virtual learning, STEM instructors were eager to return to traditional in-person classes this fall semester. Still, many have incorporated virtual teaching methods to their classes this semester. The Herald spoke with five STEM instructors about their experiences with virtual learning for the past few semesters, their experiences teaching in person once again and how they have worked to readjust their courses. 

For some, the virtual environment impacted the fieldwork aspects of learning most. Pandemic restrictions prevented dozens of students from participating in a special component of EEPS 0070: “Introduction to Oceanography” in fall 2020: a field trip to Cape Cod. “Instead of going to Cape Cod as we typically do, I ended up actually going out and recording (the areas of Cape Cod students typically explore) on video. It really is a bad substitute,” said Steven Clemens ’86 PhD ’90, the course instructor and associate professor of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences. 

This fall, Clemens was able to take more than 60 students to Cape Cod, where they were able to  look at depositional environments, the glacial context of the formation of the cape and its erosion in person. “It was fantastic to get back to normal field trips …  I’m just really happy to have students back, and I couldn’t be more pleased,” Clemens said. 

For classes with lab components, instructors took varied approaches. Adjunct Professor of the Practice of Computer Science Donald Stanford ’72 ScM ’77’s CSCI 0020: “The Digital World” had online labs prior to the pandemic, so it was easier to adapt lab materials to the virtual environment. Meanwhile, professors whose courses had in-person labs prior to the pandemic had to find ways to creatively engage students with hands-on experiments at home. Professor of Engineering Roberto Zenit worked with his co-instructor to transition labs for ENGN 0810: “Fluid Mechanics” to a remote environment in fall 2020. To maintain the hands-on component of Fluid Mechanics labs, course instructors provided lab kits that students could take home and use to conduct experiments themselves. In one experiment, Zenit’s class needed to pour pancake batter and observe its growth rate. Students could do this “fun experiment” at home and deduce the viscosity of the liquid, Zenit said. The instructors are retaining aspects of the take-home lab kits this year to increase accessibility to hands-on experiences, he added. As an engineering student, “working with your hands is very important,” Zenit said. 

 Many instructors also discussed continuing aspects of teaching STEM courses in the virtual environment. Postdoctoral Research Associate in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry Joslyn Mills, an instructor of BIOL 0600: “Genetic Screening in Model Organisms,” received special permission last fall from the University to continue having an in-person laboratory component. Because of the uncertainty of future restrictions and limited lab time, students were expected to watch lectures prior to coming to class in a flipped classroom approach. “This (flipped classroom approach) has been great, and I really liked it. We are going to continue it,”Mills said. 

Stanford uploaded asynchronous lectures to accommodate different time zones and conflicting schedules. “I don’t miss anything from last year. (This year) we still post lectures online for students to watch virtually, but talking to an empty room is not satisfying. It’s much better to be in the classroom,” he added. 

Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience Monica Linden also plans to bring aspects of teaching learned from virtual classes to in-person scenarios. In spring 2021, Linden conducted oral exams with each student instead of a written final in her class, NEUR 1540: “Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.” Before the pandemic, “I was never comfortable trying oral exams … but the oral exams went so well. In terms of interaction with students and understanding their learning, I found it to be much better than written exams,” Linden said. 

“I’m planning to keep oral exams in that class going forward, which is a big change in how I was teaching it before ... I’m pretty excited about that,” she added.  

“We all live to teach and that’s why we do what we do,” Clemens said. “I’m really happy to have students back in class.” 



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