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Changing course: College professors scramble to transition hands-on courses to remote reality amid COVID-19

Professors long accustomed to campus facilties and field research forced to make the switch to remote education - overnight
SUNY Schenectady music major Alanna Carmello, center, picks up an electronic keyboard, from Dean of Music Brett Wery, left.
SUNY Schenectady music major Alanna Carmello, center, picks up an electronic keyboard, from Dean of Music Brett Wery, left.

Mark Cornwell’s fisheries management class at SUNY Cobleskill was going to spend its final months this spring counting fish in tributaries of Otsego Lake.

During this capstone class, about 10 fisheries students would have spent their days plotting a comprehensive catch and release plan and their nights running boat operations on the water, methodically surveying the population of walleye. They would be capturing, marking and releasing fish. After coming back through and capturing another batch of fish, the students would be able to come up with an estimate of the fish population based on how much overlap in specimens there were in each round of capture combined with an intense amount of data analysis.

The massive field project would have given students a chance to work a species population estimate from design to implementation to analysis – not to mention spend time on the water getting their hands dirty.

Then the pandemic arrived, changing everything.

Fortunately, Cornwell’s students, like many at SUNY Cobleskill, had a chance to conduct field research in the early – albeit cold – months of the semester. So in the face of school closure, Cornwell transitioned the course to more of a graduate seminar, inviting alumni from across the country to join virtual classes during which they discuss the reality of the fisheries management business and how to succeed in it.

“It’s just a little bit different than actually being there in person,” Cornwell said of the new reality of education.

In the short period of time available to adapt his courses, Cornwell worked with instructional support staff to set up a YouTube page and film nearly a dozen short videos for use in the three courses he is teaching this semester. In one video, Cornwell describes the use and safety of electrofishing from a boat; in another, he walks through the different components of boats, motors and trailers; and his lab-based videos outline the use of equipment and specific data-collection techniques. In one video, called “How to Haul Seine Like a Pro,” complete with descriptive text and background music, Cornwell and other staff demonstrate a particular type of fishing practice that employs a long net called a seine; there they are on the Hudson River near Catskill on a sunny March day hauling seine. He said he plans to continue adding videos as the semester continues, building what will be a cache of demonstration videos he can draw from in future years.

Cornwell’s colleagues at SUNY Cobleskill – a college that prizes applied and hands-on learning – rushed in recent weeks as closures took hold to adapt labs for remote learning and develop new ways to teach classes that had long leveraged the school’s science labs, fish tanks, greenhouses and kitchen classrooms. “Most of us have been putting in 10-to-12-hour days,” said Tim Marten, a plant and animal science professor who teaches courses in landscape design and practice.

For his landscape design course, Marten set up a document camera above a desk as he spent two hours drafting a design diagram. The document camera captured pictures every 10 seconds and at the end he could cut the drafting into a three-minute-long time-lapse video to share with students; he also filmed a video of himself critiquing his own design, which was used to generate discussion with students.

“They can see there is some honesty and genuineness there,” he said. “You aren’t going to get it right; I didn’t get it right.”

In Marten’s design class, he puts a picture on the screen and the class critiques what they see; he didn’t know how it would go when the format moved virtual for the first time Wednesday.

“Once we got through the first picture and everyone figured out how to turn on their microphones, it was the same raucous I-love-that-I-hate-that that it always was,” he said.


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Barbara Brabetz, a science professor at SUNY Cobleskill, is teaching classes in water chemistry, general biology and biochemistry this semester. While her water chemistry students spent part of the semester collecting water samples at sites across the region, they won’t get to collect their final pieces of data. She said faculty have also had to focus on how to foster other aspects of college life from afar, like facilitating student collaboration and developing a relationship with students. Thankfully, she said, the first part of the semester gave her a chance to establish rapport with her students. Brabetz said she traditionally has read out names during the college’s commencement ceremony, a tradition she vowed to carry forward – even if in a new format this year.

For some of her labs going forward, instead of students viewing samples under a microscope and making observations, she provides them the picture of what the microscope would show; an important step is missed, but the students still learn the analysis and broader concepts.

“The observation has been provided by me, but they still have to make the observation, do the calculations, and they have a quiz on it next week,” she said.

Everyone’s doing it

At colleges across the region, syllabuses and planned lessons were turned upside down and suddenly moved online after campuses were forced to close to ensure social distancing. Science professors scrambled to adapt lab-based lessons that rely on specialized equipment to experiments colleges students can conduct at home. In some cases, like some Union science courses that had to be replaced for the term, classes just couldn’t adapt quickly enough. (Turns out it’s difficult to adapt a particle accelerator to home use on short notice.)

Many professors are blending both synchronous – students log on at a particular time for a lecture – and asynchronous – students access recorded lectures when they have time – approaches. For some classes, professors deliver live lectures at a certain time of day, including student discussions, which are then recorded and posted for later use.

Educators acknowledge the limitations of remote learning and have recognized that students may be limited in accessing a class a particular time. Even in households with multiple computers, streaming a class or accessing other online resources may be challenging when parents and siblings are all trying to work from home at the same time. SUNY Schenectady has taken strides to ensure students have access to the basics of computer-based home learning: the college purchased 500 laptops to distribute to students on short notice, and on Friday, Brett Wery, dean of the school of music, gave out keyboard pianos to students who are studying and practicing remotely.

Chad Orzel, a physics professor at Union College and the school’s director of undergraduate research, is working this term – which for Union started last week with all classes taking place remotely – with a group of other science teachers on a new multi-discipline course for non-science majors. The group of professors organized the different labs for the course, called Hot Topics in the Cool Sciences, a few weeks before closure.

“It already was an experiment, and now it’s a really different experiment than we had originally expected,” Orzel said.

Before the campus went into near total lockdown, Orzel visited to drop off around 50 envelopes containing diffraction gratings, a little piece of equipment used to produce a spectrum of light to help students understand light’s component parts, to send to students as far away as Asia. He even sent a handful of students laser pointers he purchased on Amazon. When working on campus, Orzel can demonstrate the light spectrum using precisely-calibrated equipment and materials.

Another professor teaching the course will have students work through various culinary chemistry lessons from the comfort of their home kitchens. An astronomer teaching another part of the course plans to use a remote telescope controlled over the internet. The students will use the remote telescope to measure the rotation of the Andromeda Galaxy, Orzel said. While the specifics of each exercise is different than what the course would offer on campus, the central topics being conveyed remain the same.

“If we were on campus, we would do substantially similar things, but we would have access to different chemicals or pure samples of things,” he said. “Instead it is going to have to be, ‘Ok, use some things you find in your parents’ cabinets.’”

The experiments that professors set out given their sudden constraints may even more closely resemble how scientists made the original scientific discovery being taught.

“You have to boil down what you are trying to do to the absolutely essential pieces,” Orzel said. “Some of this is kind of a throw back to things done a long, long time ago. You don’t really need the super fancy equipment.”

As director of undergraduate research, Orzel organizes an annual showcase of student research. The event is usually full of models and presentations, providing students with an opportunity to showcase their original research. He said they are currently trying to determine how to offer students a substitute opportunity.

The changing rules have been a moving target for professors and school leaders to deal with. When word first came down that SUNY campuses would be closing, it appeared that some lab-based courses would be allowed to meet in person in a restricted form. Tania Cabrera, dean of math, science, technology and health at SUNY Schenectady, said she even went into the school’s labs with a measuring tape and taped off student stations at the appropriate social distance.

“The next day, I got word everything had to be virtual, including labs,” she recalled.

The math of altered classes can be dizzying for colleges: the college offers 18 classes with a lab component, with multiple sections of the courses; the schools runs 42 labs, coordinated by six full-time faculty who were in charge of coming up with virtual alternatives in a matter of days.

For some, the change has been dramatic as new technologies have been adopted seemingly overnight.

“Faculty who have taught for us for 30 years… until a few weeks ago, the only technology they needed was a piano, not much different than Beethoven’s piano,” said Wery, the SUNY Schenectady dean of music.

Music instructors have shifted lessons to various online platforms and are working to mix together audio recorded by different students into an ensemble performance.

“The thing we are missing, of course, are audiences,” he said. “And there is no way around that.”

The college’s culinary program has also shifted from a deeply hands-on approach to something much different. Since it’s difficult to ensure students spread across different locations have access to the food products and kitchen equipment necessary to cook actual recipes, culinary instructors are focusing instead on the fundamentals of techniques. Students are being asked to watch videos of different techniques and recipes from master chefs and to break down and study each step of the process.

But the teachers are finding they can focus more on food from other cultures – sending students on virtual tours of markets around the globe – and the history that underlies the techniques so key to life in the kitchen. When students and faculty return to campuses, many of the new techniques and strategies developed during this period of remote learning will surely carry on, many people said.

“I know a lot of our students are definitely cooking and baking out there,” said Michael Stamets, a culinary professor at the college. “Even if it’s not required in class, I’m seeing students doing those projects.”

Still, educators are lamenting what is inevitably lost without the face-to-face connections that make college campuses the special places they are.

One thing that absolutely cannot be replicated virtually: smell. The smell of sauce; the smell of a science experiment gone right – or gone wrong; the smell of a greenhouse in early spring; the smell of a walleye getting pulled from cold waters.

“No matter what I do, I can’t get them to smell something,” Stamets said of trying to adapt culinary classes for remote learning. “To smell something, the smell, the touch, the feel of just doing the items is such a big difference.”

Correction 3:31 p.m. April 5: An earlier version of this article misspelled Chad Orzel’s first name.  


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