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STEM Education during COVID-19 #2

Von Liebig Center for Science, Juniata College, 2014. Image by Jason Jones. CC0 1.0 UPD.

An interview with Dr. Ursula Williams of Juniata College

As colleges plan their courses for online, hybrid, and/or socially-distanced settings, STEM courses are especially tricky to plan for given their focus on hands-on skills and experimentation. Today, we’re highlighting Juniata College, a private liberal arts college in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, and its plans for teaching STEM in the fall.

Meet Dr. Ursula Williams, an assistant professor of chemistry at Juniata. Dr. Williams is also serving as the director of the college’s Center for Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (CSoTL), and as such she has been “working with faculty across campus to think about how to… adjust teaching practices and curriculum as needed… to meet the demand for the fall semester.”

Juniata College is “moving forward with a HyFlex plan” in which “students are able to learn remotely or in-person” depending on their needs. “Most of our students are planning to return in-person,” Dr. Williams said, and “by and large, students who are on-campus will learn in face-to-face settings.”

As faculty prepare for the coming semester, they are conscious of maintaining “cohesive classroom communities” at Juniata. “Most importantly, what we’re thinking hardest about as we plan to teach across those different modalities is how to really build community between learners who are engaged in the same courses but in different ways,” Dr. Williams said, like remote students and in-person students. “In particular, we remain as committed as ever to relational education,” she added in an email.

What will this mean for students in STEM courses?

For in-person students, Juniata faculty will offer the typical laboratory opportunities in STEM courses while following social distancing and other health guidelines. “We’re thinking hard about how to maintain what we think are the really positive components of our STEM pedagogy and curriculum, despite what’s going on,” Dr. Williams commented. “In terms of lab teaching and hands-on experiences, some of them will have to take slightly different forms, but largely students will see a continuation of those activities, which I think is a positive thing.”

For any students who are unable to attend in-person courses, Juniata faculty will implement a range of strategies to help them develop skills in STEM remotely.

Juniata Quad, 2014. Image by Jason Jones.

One solution involves a shift in focus. “In a lab-based course or more hands-on course, while some of the learning outcomes for the course are typically centered on the actual, physical manipulations that you do with your hands, what we really mean for those courses is not to learn how to titrate… it’s to learn the scientific process,” Dr. Williams said. “So, if you think about the scientific process, most of those things can happen in remote settings too.”

Other courses may be “grouping together remote students into one section, and having those students work in a more typical remote lab setting,” using shipped lab kits to “do some physical manipulation to gather some bits of data on their own, and get some of those skills.”

A third option for faculty teaching remote students is “exploring how you develop authentic scientific inquiry that can happen in a remote setting.” Dr. Williams elaborated, “For example, there are some online biochemistry projects that are genuine research that’s happening… and so some faculty are thinking about how to gear their lab-based classes to emphasize a scientific method that doesn't require a wet lab to accomplish the goals of the course.”

Juniata College will also be offering in-person and remote student research opportunities during the pandemic. Dr. Williams mentioned one remote student who may be conducting research in the fall by working on the literature review, hypothesis generation, and project development from home with the guidance of a faculty member.

This is just one situation, and there are many other possibilities for STEM researchers at Juniata. “I think for projects that have advanced far enough, there might be remote data analysis that can be done,” Dr. Williams said. “Without a doubt there will be opportunities for students to be face-to-face in research labs again, depending on the discretion of the research advisor. So long as the research advisor is able to mentor those students [while] maintaining both the social distancing requirements and the lab safety requirements, those opportunities will continue to exist.”

As the fall semester approaches, Dr. Williams and her colleagues have been considering what they have learned since the beginning of the pandemic. Unlike last spring’s courses, which were offered online in an emergency transition, fall courses have been designed with the possibility of remote students in mind. “Because there’s the potential of online learners or remote learners in any of our courses, faculty now are working hard to make sure that their courses are better suited to facilitate online learners’ needs,” Dr. Williams said.

In the midst of the tragedy, she has reflected on her role as an educator during the pandemic. “I think that… engaging in teaching means that you’re hopeful. If you’re working with students, you’re trying to affect positive things for the next generation,” Dr. Williams remarked. “I think it’s good to look at messes like the one we’re in and look for hopeful messages.”

In particular, “as a campus, we’ve collectively learned how to teach more effectively with technology, and with that in place, it’s hard to imagine that going away.” Professors have also been honing and applying Juniata’s educational philosophy even more to respond to the challenges of the pandemic. “People are working hard to sort of streamline their teaching to be the very best it can be, which I think is so, so positive, and I think across higher education that will be a culture shift,” Dr. Williams predicted. “We’ll teach for the better, even at the end of all this.”

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