Posted: April 19, 2021

Instructors in the college respond to the pandemic with new and improved ways of engaging with students.

Into the woods Julian Avery's field work never stops. Even in the dead of winter during a pandemic, Avery is in the wilds scouting animal habitat in preparation for the spring semester. Photo: Cardoni

Into the woods Julian Avery's field work never stops. Even in the dead of winter during a pandemic, Avery is in the wilds scouting animal habitat in preparation for the spring semester. Photo: Cardoni

Last March, when Julian Avery learned that Penn State's classes would move to remote instruction due to COVID-19, he was unsure of how to handle his Amphibians and Reptiles (WFS 462) course. He couldn't just switch to lecturing on Zoom; the entire class was designed to be taught in person in the field.

"We typically spend the whole time outside looking at animals and their habitats," said Avery, an assistant research professor of wildlife ecology and conservation. "I had no idea how I was going do that remotely."

Since he couldn't take the students into the field, Avery decided to do his best to bring the field to the students. He went out to the sites on his own, filmed and photographed habitats and animals, and used the images to create interactive lessons. Ultimately, he said, he was pleased with the outcome, but it didn't compare to the real deal. "It was really hard for the students," he said. "Many of them look forward to taking this class as seniors with the expectation that it's going to be a lot of fun. I think they were disappointed because it was their last chance to do something big like this at Penn State."

Instructors across campus shared Avery's frustration. With a statewide lockdown imminent, they all had to scramble to deliver their content in an entirely new format.

"Our faculty and staff moved to remote instruction with less than a week's notice, and last fall many of them had to create 'mixed-mode' courses," said Tracy Hoover, associate dean for undergraduate education in the college. "That required a high level of creativity, work, and planning from an instructional and assessment perspective."

From Garage to Classroom

Like Avery, Bradley Jakubowski, an instructor in the Department of Plant Science who teaches Golf Course Irrigation Management (TURF 307), said when classes went remote, his primary concern was keeping his students engaged. "I usually include a lot of hands-on activities," he said. "I didn't know how I was going to be able to do that online."

One-man garage band: Without access to lab and field equipment, Bradley Jakubowski built an irrigation system and a home studio for remote teaching from his garage. Photo: Cardoni

Jakubowski decided to demonstrate the hands-on activities on video. He converted his garage into a classroom outfitted with a set of display tables showing irrigation system components and a variety of quick-reference items and visuals hanging on the back wall. At one point, he installed an entire irrigation system, complete with water hookup, and walked his students through the various assembly techniques.

"That's where it took off," said Jakubowski. "I realized I needed multiple cameras to show all the different steps. Then it became a matter of 'How do I seamlessly switch from camera to camera so they can get a better sense for the components and methods?' It forced me to think about what the students were seeing and how I could help them to better understand the material."

Later in the semester, Jakubowski decided the students needed some true hands-on experiences, so he reached out to irrigation components manufacturer Hunter Industries in hopes that the company could provide some parts.

"I was looking for irrigation valves, sprinkler heads, nozzles, whatever they could send me that I could pack into a flat-rate mailer from the post office and send to the students at their homes," said Jakubowski. Despite the San Marcos, California, plant being entirely shut down due to COVID-19, the company's CEO gave an employee permission to collect items from the building. A week later, Jakubowski had about 10 cases of different types of materials, from which he put together at-home packets for the students. On Zoom, the class worked together to disassemble and reassemble various irrigation system components. "It was a way to get them engaged and make them feel almost like they were in the classroom."

Advance Warning

Over the summer, as COVID-19 cases continued to climb, it became clear that business would not resume as usual come fall. On June 14, the University announced its "Back to State" plan for courses to be delivered through "a highly flexible mix of in-person, remote, and online instruction." With more time to plan, instructors came up with creative ways to teach their students.

To prepare for her fall Advanced Dairy Herd Management (ANSC 410) course, Lisa Holden, associate professor of dairy science, visited the dairy farm where under normal circumstances she would have taken students on an in-person field trip, and took photos and videos with which to build a virtual field trip. "The farm had a strict no-photo policy, but they made an exception for us given the circumstances," said Holden. "We have appreciated being able to collaborate with dairy farms for virtual evaluation experiences for our students. Together we are helping to prepare the next generation." The virtual field trip ended with a Zoom session with the farm owner, a nutritionist, and reproductive specialists.

Moving pieces: Lisa Holden spent her summer prepping for virtual tours and livestreams and creating an infrastructure for a mixed-mode course with four other specialists in the college: Alexander Hristov, Troy Ott, Robert Goodling, and Ernest Hovingh.

Holden taught the mixed-mode course with four other specialists in the college: Alexander Hristov, professor of dairy nutrition; Troy Ott, professor of reproductive physiology; Robert Goodling, extension associate in animal science; and Ernest Hovingh, associate research professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences. Hovingh offered an in-person hoof-trimming lab at the Penn State Dairy Barns, but due to the smaller space in the milking parlor, livestreamed from a partner dairy farm.

Avery, too, chose to teach his fall Wildlife and Fisheries Management (WFS 310) course in mixed mode. He provided the lecture component of his course virtually, and was able to take the students into the field for the lab portion. "That was their saving grace," he said. "Many of them told me my in-person lab was the only reason they came back to campus."

Avery said the students were easily able to mask up and distance from one another while outside. As a result, they were able to participate directly in bird banding, electrofishing, deer darting, and other common techniques for collecting information about animals.

"Doing hands-on work is the best part of working with animals," said Tyler King, a senior majoring in wildlife and fisheries science who took Avery's class last fall. "In Dr. Avery's class, the first lab involved us working with huge snapping turtles, so it automatically became the best class i've had so far in college. Having WFS 310 in person meant a lot to me, and I really appreciate the college finding ways for us to be able to take the classes that we needed to be in person for so we could get those hands-on experiences."

Elyse Johnson, a junior majoring in wildlife and fisheries science, echoed the sentiment. "Spending several hours each week exploring local habitats alongside such a considerate small group provided the boost of confidence and serotonin I needed to endure long weeks of unprecedented screen time," she said.

Jakubowski heard similar sentiments from his students. "During the summer, I wrestled with whether or not to teach my fall course synchronously or asynchronously," he said. "In our first in-person meeting, one of my students said, 'Boy, it's great to be with people on campus again.' To hear him say that was huge for me."

Remote Connection

Going fully remote, however, didn't prevent the instructors of the popular Fungal Jungle: A Mycological Safari from Truffles to Slime Molds (PPEM 120) course from providing a unique learning experience to students.

"Listening to someone go 'blah, blah, blah' for 50 minutes on Zoom can be unbearable," said Gretchen Kuldau, associate professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology. "That's why we [Kuldau and María del Mar Jiménez Gasco] spent the summer preparing our class with a variety of activities to help our students stay engaged."

Buckhout Lockout: With many labs and other teaching facilities off-limits during the fall semester, Gretchen Kuldau (left) and María del Mar Jiménez Gasco provided homebuilt kits for mushroom growing, and sent their students into their backyards and parks for hands-on investigation. Photo: Cardoni

One strategy Kuldau and Jiménez Gasco, associate professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology, used during lectures was to divide the students into breakout rooms to discuss particular questions. "This worked really well," said Kuldau. "I think it empowered students who might not normally have spoken up to have their voices heard, maybe not directly, but through the group spokesperson."

To make the course more hands on, the instructors prepared kits for each student containing the supplies for growing oyster mushrooms on toilet paper rolls and for observing fungi growing out of plant seeds. They also threw in a few fungal snacks.

Kuldau said the team normally takes students on a walk around campus to show them fungi up close. "To provide them with an alternative, we created a scavenger hunt so they could go out near their homes and hunt for fungi," she said. The students took photos of what they found so they could share them with the class on Zoom.

Eli Kelsey, majoring in community, environment, and development and Russian, said the scavenger hunt was his favorite activity. "I was surprised how many kinds of fungi I found within 100 yards of my house."

Reflecting on the exercise, Kuldau noted that having the students do the scavenger hunt on their own may have been a better learning experience for them than going on a guided tour with their professors. "Instead of us showing them and telling them everything we knew, they had to go out and find fungi on their own and really think about what they were finding," she said. "I think it was a great experience for them."

Jiménez Gasco added that offering the course remotely allowed the team to closely consider what they wanted to accomplish and how they could be more creative than usual in delivering it. "We found that some of the new activities worked out better than we thought they would," she said. "We'll definitely consider keeping some of them when we go back to in-person teaching."

Shrinky Dinks and Silly Putty

Stephen Chmely, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering, also found that teaching remotely was an opportunity to critically evaluate his teaching style. "On Zoom, it doesn't work to be a so-called 'sage on a stage,' where you just lecture with powerpoint slides for an hour. That doesn't work remotely because the students' cameras are turned off and you can't even tell if they're paying attention," Chmely said. "It forced me to think about ways that I can actively involve the students so they are more engaged in what they are learning. I think it's made me a better teacher because I am more deliberate about how I deliver the content."

Last fall, Chmely taught Bio-Based Polymers (BRS 501), a graduate-level course in which students learn about the chemistry, structure-property relationships, and industrial applications of bio-based polymers from plant and agricultural feedstocks.

To interject some fun into the class, Chmely created at-home kits for making Shrinky Dinks. "We were learning about glass transition temperatures, so we spent half a class period making Shrinky Dinks and talking about how they related back to the course material," he said. "It was a fun way for them to get up out of their chair and do something."

For his spring Bioproducts Science and Technology (BRS 411) course, Chmely is introducing additional hands-on activities. "We can't do chemistry," he said, "and we don't have all the fancy instruments that we have on campus, so I'm giving students activities that only require materials they can find at home or easily purchase at the grocery store."

In one exercise, students will learn about composite materials by making ice cubes containing little strips of paper and comparing their strength to that of regular ice cubes when dropped from a distance. "The ones without paper will completely shatter, while the ones that have been reinforced with paper will not," he said. In another activity, the students will examine the properties of certain polymers by making Silly Putty from Elmer's glue and contact lens solution. "Those types of lessons translate well to a remote environment where students don't have to be in the lab wearing safety glasses," he said.

Silver Linings

The extra efforts made by the college's instructors haven't gone unnoticed by students. In fact, in addition to their appreciation for the engaging activities they've been offered, many of them have also expressed gratitude for the opportunity to safely share their fears and frustrations related to COVID-19 and other recent difficult events.

Last fall, Kaila Thorn, a graduate student in ag and extension education, took Applied Youth, Family, and Community Education (AYFCE 840) with Associate Professor of Youth and International Development Nicole Webster. "Dr. Webster crafted a course environment where we could discuss today's most controversial topics, including the virus, racial issues, politics, and the short- and long-term impacts to youth of these topics," she said. "Without this class I did not have a space in my life where I could speak with my peers in an academic and nonacademic manner about the events of this year. The engagement we had with Dr. Webster was essential to ensuring a successful fall semester for all of us."

Avery said he relates to the students' stress. "It's been hard for me to teach my lecture online because my whole routine is to get up and make jokes about myself and to walk around and interact with small groups all the time," he said. "If I'm having a hard time, I have to expect that they are too."

Indeed, Avery said some of his students expressed their frustration to him. "It was really sad how many students reached out saying they just couldn't handle it," he said. "Being able to be there for them and empathize with how hard it's been was extremely rewarding."

Despite the challenges, the students made the best of a bad situation. "I was amazed at how they responded to the situation," said Avery. "They really brought their best attitude to the effort, and that ended up helping me."

Hoover commends the students as well as all the other members of the college for their perseverance in the face of the pandemic. "Our faculty and teaching staff have done an incredible job modifying and enhancing their instruction, and our academic advisers and programmatic and departmental staff have also done an outstanding job meeting the students' needs. I am very proud of our students, staff, faculty, and administrators, as well as the level of support we received from our alumni and stakeholders during this unique time."

Chmely noted that even though he continues to plan and fine-tune his remote courses, he has his eye on the future when he and his students can return to regular in-person classes. "Having students in person in the classroom is really energizing," he said. "I didn't realize how much fun it was until it wasn't there anymore. I just miss having them around."

By Sara LaJeunesse

Photography by Cardoni