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.”
Innovative teaching in communication
I felt very committed from the beginning that I was going to teach COMM-1101 in person if I was allowed. I don’t have any risk factors for COVID, and of course I trusted that there were going to be mechanisms in place to make that possible and safe for everybody.
I worked on this class every day for two months, trying to prepare it for all the different modes, to really be ready for anything. In my mind, I had a TED Talk as an example of how I wanted the class to look and feel for the students who were online.
Remote students attending class online via Zoom
Asynchronous remote students watching recorded lectures
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.
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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