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By Melanie Lefkowitz
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  • Entomology
Elora Robeck ’24 couldn’t find rubbing alcohol.

She needed alcohol to preserve the soft-bodied insects she’d collected near her home in Missouri, for her entomology class at Cornell. But it wasn’t included in her box of supplies, because alcohol is too flammable to ship. Her local drug store was all sold out.

So at her professor’s suggestion, she asked her father to buy a bottle of 190-proof Everclear instead.

“We don’t drink in my family, and he had never been in the liquor store before,” said Robeck, who is not yet 21. “He came home and said ‘Let’s not get any more. I don’t want to go back.’”

Robeck is one of five virtual students in Insect Biology, in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who received what the instructor calls a “treasure box” of entomologists’ starter supplies. The box included an insect net, killing jar, pins, collection box and inexpensive digital microscopes. While the Ithaca-based students flip over logs in the woods surrounding campus, remote participants – from Missouri to Miami to Mexico – do the same wherever they are.

“The students are being resourceful in a suboptimal situation,” said the instructor, Cole Gilbert, professor of entomology and the Hays and James M. Clark Director of Undergraduate Biology. “And they like the idea that this class requires them to step away from the computer and go outside.”

The class of 31 students has a hybrid format this semester, with online lectures, in-person labs and insect-finding trips. Normally they’d drive beyond Ithaca, but because it’s hard to social distance in a van, they’re doing their collecting within walking distance of Comstock Hall.

They’ll spend the remainder of the semester studying and identifying their collections in the lab, now spread out into an adjacent room to create more space for social distancing.

“There’s not as much hubbub as usual,” Gilbert said. “They’re distributed, but they’re interacting with each other, they can talk with each other, share ideas, look at each other’s cool specimens.”

From prototyping smart tattoos at home to managing a restaurant via Zoom, Cornellians are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic this semester with a mixture of creativity, technology and resilience. While minimizing risk and adhering to safety precautions, virtual, in-person and hybrid classes across disciplines are employing innovative ways to leave students with lasting – but safe – educational experiences. And even within the limitations, instructors have found some silver linings, as students learn new lessons in unexpected ways.

“I was worried that this year would be really hard,” Robeck said. “And some of my classes have been hard. 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.”

This article is a segment taken from a Cornell Chronicle. For more examples of innovation in the classroom at Cornell, read on.  

Header image: Students in Insect Biology hunt for insects on the shores of Beebe Lake. Photo by Lindsay France/Cornell University

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