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With the fall 2020 semester almost complete, CALS faculty have pioneered new ways to adapt their classes to fit their students’ needs — whether teaching in-person or virtually.

From navigating social distancing requirements to sending creative, do-it-yourself toolkits to their remote students, the CALS community has continued to persevere in the face of unprecedented challenges.

Below, hear from several CALS faculty members about how they adapted both their lecture-based courses and their hands-on labs to the hybrid teaching model this semester. 

Cole Gilbert, professor of entomology and the Hays and James M. Clark Director of Undergraduate Biology

Class: ENTOM 2120 – Insect Biology

All of my virtual students received “treasure boxes” of entomology starter supplies, which included an insect net, a killing jar, pins, a collection box and inexpensive digital microscopes. While the Ithaca-based students flipped over logs in the woods surrounding campus, remote participants – from Missouri to Miami to Mexico – were able to do the same wherever they were.

“I was worried that this year would be really hard,” said Elora Robeck ’24, who completed the class from her home in Missouri. “But having the online meetings with Dr. Gilbert and chatting with the other students about what kinds of insects we’ve found, how our collections are going, has been really nice. It feels pretty personal, even though we’re so many miles apart.”

Sahara Byrne, professor of communication

Class: COMM 1101 – Introduction to Communication


In-person students


Remote students attending class online via Zoom


Asynchronous remote students watching recorded lectures

Martin Hogue, associate professor of landscape architecture

Class: Master of Landscape Architecture – Studio: Composition and Theory

Innovative teaching in Landscape Architecture

Prior to the first week of class, I put together “kits” of tools and supplies destined for each of the 10 new students enrolled in the first year of the Master of Landscape Architecture program. Of these 10 new students, we greeted five in person, and five attended classes remotely from around the world, including Medellin, Colombia and Shanghai, China.

Innovative teaching in Landscape Architecture

I decided to put together a box of tools and supplies (with the exception of a computer and software) that would allow the students to complete every studio assignment for the semester. This included pencils, pens, charcoal sticks, erasers, engineering and architectural scales, drafting triangles, X-Acto knifes, cutting mats, sketchbooks and materials like paper, clay and cardboard.

Innovative teaching in Landscape Architecture

Given the geographic distance that separated the students, the kit provided a concrete link to their first semester at Cornell, to our studio class and to one another. On the first day of our Zoom class, everyone started in exactly the same place when we individually and collectively opened the boxes.

Innovative teaching in Landscape Architecture

While preparing the kit, I was careful to avoid making assumptions about students’ remote working conditions. While local students had access to large desks and supplies in the department’s studio space on the 4th floor of Kennedy Hall, the same expectations could not be made about remote students. To this end, I wanted to provide our new students with the most equitable basis possible for them to start the semester, no matter their personal circumstances.

Martin sitting on the floor assembling boxes in his living room.
A cardboard box containing landscape architecture studio supplies, such as pencils, pens, charcoal sticks, erasers, engineering and architectural scales, drafting triangles, X-Acto knifes, cutting mats, sketchbooks and materials like paper, clay and cardboard.
Piles of supplies, including pens, pencils and rulers, laid out on the floor.
Cardboard boxes of supplies, including pencils, pens, charcoal sticks, erasers, engineering and architectural scales, drafting triangles, X-Acto knifes, cutting mats, sketchbooks and materials like paper, clay and cardboard.
Anurag Agrawal, James A. Perkins Professor of Environmental Studies in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Class: BIOEE 3611 – Field Ecology

The course remained in-person for all 20 students. The major change for BIOEE 3611 was the labs, where students would learn field ecology and do independent experiments. We did six labs on campus, taking advantage of Dilmun Hill Student Farm, Cornell Botanic Gardens and our other beautiful natural areas. For the other six labs, we rented a commercial bus, which enabled us to maintain appropriate physical distance while en route to farther field locations, including bogs and old growth forests.

Frankly, I was surprised by how well it worked. The students seemed eager to be engaged in a real in-person activity, and being outside has been such a treasure for all of us. I was impressed with the students’ flexibility and desire to experience the Ithaca surroundings. At first it seemed that winter was approaching rapidly, and it was a race against the season. But then rain and warmth returned, and it was a wonderful fall color season — with extended nice days and many Friday afternoons where we collected data on birds, trees and even fossils.

Jillian Goldfarb, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering

Class: BEE 2510 - Engineering Processes for Environmental Sustainability

Innovation in teaching biological and environmental engineering

I spent a lot of time this summer reading about best practices for online learning, talking with Cornell’s Center for Teaching Innovation and working with my Active Learning Initiative postdoctoral researcher to rethink my entire BEE 2510 course. We built a Canvas site where every class meeting (all 27 sessions!) has its own webpage. Each has a series of videos covering the major objectives for that class and practice problems that I pre-record in a mini teaching studio that I set up in my house.

Jillian Goldfarb in her home teaching studio
Tim Setter, professor of soil and crop sciences

Class: PLSCS 2110/4050 - Field Crop Systems

With the majority of this course’s 36 students attending in-person, I wanted to ensure that we had a lab environment in which the students would have opportunities to interact with each other and the instructors in a safe way. In our case, this meant moving from an indoor lab setting, to an outdoor one, with a more remote location. Because of that, we had weather issues to contend with. We had to use rocks to keep our notes from blowing away, and during our last lab, my hands were too cold to actually grip and use my pen.

To ensure our outdoor lab time was used as efficiently as possible, I decided to create pre-lab video clips that would give students some of the introductory information they needed to know to complete the work. They watched the video before they arrived, and then we didn’t have to spend a lot of time standing around, going over the background materials.

I give the students a lot of credit. They were very resilient in less than ideal conditions – both with the lab’s farther location and the weather. They cooperated extremely well to try and make this semester successful.

Margaret Frank, assistant professor of plant biology

Class: PLBIO 2410 - Introductory Plant Diversity and Evolution

This semester, my Introduction to Plant Diversity and Evolution course had 50 students, with just about half attending in-person and the other half remote. A lot of the learning in this class happens in hands-on lab sections, where students use microscopes to actually look at slides and living examples, so it was important that both the in-person and remote students got that experience.

One way I was really able to ensure a more equitable learning experience was through the iNaturalist app. For the past 42 years, there has been a field trip during the first week of the semester where the students go and see living plants. We were able to still have that field trip this year, but in a different way. Using the iNaturalist app, students took pictures of their local flora, whether they were on campus or at their remote study locations. The app then helped identify what the plant was, and the images were added to a project website. Once all of the photos were uploaded, we had photos from Ithaca, California, Illinois, Singapore and China – so it was very cool to have this group collection come together.

Because of innovations like this, I’d say COVID actually helped my students have a more enhanced learning experience. They were able to participate in things that aren’t usually offered in this course, which has been a wonderful surprise to come out of 2020. I think it has really been a very engaging experience.

Article produced by Hillary Creedon, Communications Specialist, Office of Marketing and Communications, CALS. 

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