Great Public Schools

Choose Wisely, Find Connections

By Jessica Schrunk

Biology Faculty, Chemeketa Community College - Yamhill Valley Campus

Teaching my biology courses online has been a new and challenging experience for me. All my courses prior to the school closure have been in person and biology labs are naturally hands on experiences.

One of the things I’ve really noticed this past week is the lack of connection between students in my courses. In a normal classroom, people become friends, create study groups, and generally support each other. Very few students can complete lab work without talking with someone else to get feedback or ask questions. But now, all my students are siloed. They may not even know who is in their class with them and they aren’t connecting in that same way.

I have been brainstorming ways to work around this lack of connection and I have reached out to our IT department to see what is possible. One idea I have is to create a discussion board for them that I don’t moderate or facilitate to create connections. Another idea is to have Zoom meetings for my classes that I don’t participate in. I want to create these spaces that happen naturally during in-person courses while respecting students’ privacy.

Perhaps one of my biggest challenges is recreating science labs for an online course. I can’t recreate the in-person lab experience – that’s impossible. So, I look for ways to provide similar experiences. For example, I take pictures of what we would normally do and post those for students to use. I also try to recreate experiments using common items you can find in a grocery store. For my plant biology course, I encourage students to go outside and find examples of plants we are discussing in their natural environment. I also make leaving the home optional because I know there are some students who may not feel comfortable going to the grocery store or leaving the house.

But I want students to get hands on experiences as much as they can. I want to get away from my computer and I know my students do, too. I try and do anything I can do to get them away from staring at that box and engaging with science. Most of my students won’t go on to be biologists but they are going to be people who consume science no matter who or what they are. I want to show them that if you’re cooking you’re doing science. If you’re fixing a car, you’re using the scientific method. These modified labs can help with that.

I’m also trying to resist the pressure to use new technology – like new virtual lab software, for example – just because it exists. I think we need to choose technology wisely and make sure that whatever we use supports learning in the end. I have tried a few new technologies and even though I know my content and am proficient with a computer, I still get frustrated and then give up and move on. That won’t serve my students. I have an obligation to my students to have content prepared and I don’t want technology to get in the way of that.

The two new practices that I will continue to use after the closure ends and we can get back to campus is hosting some office hours using Zoom and incorporating more narrated videos. For office hours, I’ve noticed that it is easier for my students with families, jobs or other obligations to meet with me online than come to my physical office. I think I’ll be able to see more students in office hours this way.

Secondly, I want to use more narrated videos in my syllabus. I’m noticing that my students who struggle with attention and focus during in person lectures are thriving and excelling right now because they can pause the videos to take a break and refocus or they can watch the videos when they are ready, even if that is 2 a.m.

Lastly, I hope decision makers and policy makers see how hard we are working to support students. I’ve been working 10-hour days since March 28 and use a detailed check list each week to keep myself on track. We are going to need more support when life returns to “normal.” Schools and colleges have to survive and come back healthier and stronger. Without our institutions, society is going to suffer.

For my plant biology course, I encourage students to go outside and find examples of plants we are discussing in their natural environment. I also make leaving the home optional because I know there are some students who may not feel comfortable going to the grocery store or leaving the house.

Tools to Share

The first tool I’m sharing is a weekly checklist I use to keep myself organized. This helps me see what I have done and what I need to do for all my classes each week.

The second tool I’m sharing is a video for how I have set up a version of a document camera so I can make videos to share with my students.