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Silver lining

Science instructors, students adapt well to remote teaching and learning environment

Teaching and Learning

By Kelly Foss

It’s been a difficult semester for teaching staff and students, but amidst the uncertainty there has been a silver lining.

Justin Pittman is a lab instructor with the Department of Physics and Physical Oceanography, Faculty of Science. He says much of what his department has created to aid with remote teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic will have value for years to come.

Justin Pittman
Photo: Submitted

“I’ve always be a proponent of change, adapt, make better, and this was a chance to reassess how you deliver on your goals to students,” he said. “I don’t think a negative implication can be associated with that.”

Throughout the summer, he met virtually with physics lab instructors from other universities to talk about the topics they wanted to teach and problem-solve ways to do it.

“There are people out there who have skill sets beyond what we have, so why not ask them what they are doing?” said Mr. Pittman. “We talked about what we were developing and shared ideas of what else we could do.

“We didn’t always have to find the perfect answer,” he added. “It just had to be one that would work. But, I’m actually pretty proud of the stuff we’ve developed for our students.”

Those include regular Ask Me Anything sessions with students, using Arduino, an easy-to-use, open-source electronics platform allowing students to build and use low-cost scientific instruments at home and working on shared labs with teaching staff at Grenfell Campus, building a physics community of practice that hadn’t previously existed.

“I think what we’ve been doing is trailblazing,” said Mr. Pittman. “It’s been a chance to try things we normally wouldn’t have and it has real implications that will carry forward, even when we go back to whatever normal is.”

Redesigning curriculum

Dr. Mark Berry
Photo: Submitted

Dr. Mark Berry, head, Department of Biochemistry, says his department was already talking about redesigning their curriculum when the pandemic began.

“It forced us to evaluate and look at how individual courses and programs are structured, to ask: Why are we doing it this way?” he said. “What is the justification, other than this is the way we’ve always done things? What people forget is, while you’re still teaching the same material, you don’t have to teach it in the same way.”

Dr. Berry says the department learned from an online course that has been taught to nurses for several years.

“Rather than decreasing the weight of exams and putting in extra assignments, which can have students feeling overwhelmed, we switched to small, five- or 10-minute quizzes, or 20- to 30-minute quizzes, instead of large writing assignments.”

Since nearly all of the department’s labs are dedicated courses, and not a combination of lectures and labs, they were also able to cancel labs for the year.

That allowed the department to redeploy lab demonstrators and teaching assistants (TAs) to instructors teaching courses.

“It was up to the instructor how to use those extra TAs, but the idea was they would run weekly tutorial sessions, with 20 students per tutor,” said Dr. Berry. “That seems to have worked reasonably well.”

Research at home

Cassidy Arnold is a fifth-year honours student in the Department of Ocean Sciences.

Cassidy Arnold
Photo: Submitted

She’s grateful the past semester has allowed her to continue her studies while staying at home in Ontario and working full time in a local hospital.

Ms. Arnold has been focusing on her honours project, under the supervision of Dr. Pat Gagnon.

“It’s different doing lab work in your home versus doing it in a place like the Ocean Sciences Centre,” she said. “It’s so beautiful there, you can’t help but be inspired. But Dr. Gagnon was very supportive. He sent me a microscope, lights and all the samples I needed. We are happy with how well it has been working out.”

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