Kalamazoo Section of the American Chemical Society

We are a dynamic and visionary organization committed to improving people’s lives in our community through the transforming power of chemistry.  We strive to advance the broader chemistry enterprise and its practitioners for the benefit of Kalamazoo, Allegan and Van Buren counties.

Teaching Science In Virtual Space

By Doug Williams – KACS Alt. Councilor

Teachers everywhere have been forced to teach remotely and in new ways. Challenges seem especially difficult for disciplines such as the physical and life sciences that rely on laboratory training. These challenges have caused chemists to question the effectiveness of traditional laboratory approaches in general.

The following stories highlight the efforts of two faculty members, Christine Pruis and Cynthia Schauer, at KVCC to address these challenges. Chris explains her motivation:

I was so impressed with how my students rose to the challenge of the switch to online midterm and the work that they did then. My current summer students are also quite impressive. One student shared with me that her mother passed away from COVID and many are working full time and/or have families. They really inspire me.

Local High School teachers have expressed interest to us in learning how our Kalamazoo ACS members might help them in their classes through presentations on careers and research work or assistance with curriculum/activity development. We are considering a variety of approaches to build our local teacher outreach program through mentoring and small grants. Are you someone who might be able to help a local teacher? If so, please contact Doug Williams.

Chemistry Online

By Christine Pruis

KVCC logo

When classes at KVCC abruptly switched to fully online March of 2020 due to Covid-19, I launched myself fully into creating a supportive and adaptive learning environment amidst my own struggles related to the situation. The first thing I did was send a reassuring video message to all my students. The next thing was to begin the seemingly herculean effort of rapidly converting the ground lecture and lab to an online course. Due to multiple pots of coffee a day and many sleepless nights, I hit the ground running with recorded lectures, online quizzes, and lab simulations. But, just like my coffee fix, my class and I quickly hit a wall. Ultimately this wall was the best thing that could have happened to us, as the process of finding a way around it created the most unique and fulfilling course of my twelve years of higher-ed teaching.

Having taught blended courses in the past at Arizona State University and having worked as a Subject Matter Expert for an educational digital media publisher, I have extensive experience recording chemistry lectures and creating digital content. However, I quickly found that simply reverting to my old skills and past expectations was not very effective with my students during the Covid-induced switch to online learning. At first I could not figure out why these students, who I knew were smart and competent, were struggling with the online course! But after a few open and honest emails from students the reasons became clear. They already knew each other from a face-to-face course and they were used to interactive ground lectures, discussions, and laboratory collaborations. Furthermore, because they had not signed up for an online course many did not have the resources or, dare I say skills, to succeed in that environment. And of course, all of the changes in this class were being mirrored in their other courses and all other aspects of their lives!

This revelation resulted in some reflection and research. What was my purpose as an educator? What expectations from the face-to-face course were non-negotiable? What types of assessments best helped students reach the learning outcomes? What methods created an equitable learning environment? Countless educators and I are still grappling with these types of questions. However, relatively quickly I was able to make many adjustments to assignment types, communication style, and general expectations while retaining high quality standards for students and myself. Below are some implemented changes which increased student engagement, equity, and education.

  • In lieu of synchronous video conferencing class and lab sessions, I elected to present material in an asynchronous manner via pre-recorded lectures and online lab simulations/activities. While students had signed up for a face-to-face class at a specific time, the sudden switch to online learning often came with drastic changes to schedules and commitments. The asynchronous presentation style allowed students to complete material at a time and location convenient for their lives.
  • I recorded lectures and tutorials on my tablet and posted them on Canvas, KVCC's Learning management System. Each video focused on one or two main concepts with a self-imposed time limit of 20 min. The analytics showed that the shorter time span increased video views and completion rates. The displayed clarity of the concepts covered allowed students to focus on the videos which they needed. The data also showed many students would often watch select videos multiple times.
  • In the face-to-face lecture and lab, I encourage learning by doing. I wanted to continue this in the online environment. This prompted me to focus on developing purposeful and effective assessments. I could no longer use many of the materials developed for an in person experience. Tests were revamped, quizzes adjusted, experiments reimagined, group activities modified, and lab reports revised all with the goal of retaining specific learning outcomes. For example, instead of hand written "show your work" tests I elected to split the tests into two parts: a confirmative assessment involving algorithmically randomized quiz questions along with a unique summative assessment handwritten portion. My favorite summative assessment was giving students "data" from space rock minerals and having them create the periodic table and construct Lewis structures from the alien planet (newsflash: this planet had an "sextet rule" instead of an "octet rule").
  • An additional assessment type was the implementation of low stakes "your turn" assignments following every 2-3 lecture videos. These were designed to mimic the daily face-to-face group activities, to establish a learning standard, and to give students a pacing framework. Often these were quizzes I wrote in Canvas, but other times they were hand written calculations or discussion board posts. These formative assignments were worth minimal points but were pivotal for student success and engagement.
  • Just like the ground lecture which met twice a week, the "your turn" assignments were due twice a week. If a student skipped two assignments in a row, then I would contact that student directly. This allowed me to quickly gauge which students were staying on task and which ones were at risk. The students I contacted were always thankful for the personal touch and often opened up about struggles they were encountering at home or work.
  • Due to student technology limitations written work could be submitted via multiple channels and was accepted in various formats (hand written, typed, pdf, video, image) uploaded into Canvas. Typically when teaching a blended course I am quite particular about format. But given the shut-down many students did not have access to printers or other resources. I am glad I accepted multiple styles as I was often impressed with their creativity and resourcefulness.
  • During the face-two-face course I limited my Canvas announcements or emails to one a week. However, during the switch to remote learning I began sending out announcements/emails at least four times a week. Most were brief communications about expectations and new postings, but often they contained words of encouragement. All announcements were written but many also contained a video version – I wanted them to know that I was still there supporting them, and I felt that seeing my face and expressions (and dorky chemistry tee-shirts and mugs) regularly would help with that. Zoom office hours was also a good time for personalized communications.
  • For the first online lab I posted videos and pictures of the lab as performed by Kalamazoo Valley Lab staff and faculty. I then asked them to complete a similar lab assignment as would have been submitted in the face-to-face lab. However, students really struggled with the concepts and assignment. It was clear that not performing the experiment themselves really diminished their ability to connect the tangible measurements and observations to general theory. For the remaining labs I replaced portions of the lab videos and images with PhET or other simulations. Students were asked to interact with the simulations and answer questions guiding them to connect the macroscopic with the particulate.
  • They wanted to remain part of a community. Therefore, I brought in outside resources to make them feel like part of a larger science community. One such example was supplementing the online spectroscopy lab with a podcast I found on the life of Albert Einstein. It prompted a unique discussion board conversation. My class found Einstein's zig-zag career trajectory very interesting in light of our current situation. Many students resonated with some aspect of his life.
  • Finally, it was clear that many of my students were scared and experiencing high anxiety. I wanted to try to help them in some way so I grasped onto Marie Curie's eloquent statement "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less." Therefore, I brought in two literature assignments designed to help them connect their chemistry knowledge to the pandemic with the hope that understanding the connections would alleviate their worries. For both assignments I curated reputable articles and/or videos from the internet with a focus on the concept of "structure determines function." The first assignment focused on the molecular structure of potential COVID-19 treatments. The second assignment focused on how soap and hand sanitizers interact with and destroy viruses. It was clear students appreciated learning more about these topics and connecting the concepts from the class to their current situation.

Without a doubt I wish that COVID-19 was not here and that the switch to online never occurred. However, given the situation I can truly say I have been so impressed with how the KVCC students, faculty, administration, and staff rose to the challenge. My students during that last term were tenacious, and I learned so much about how to foster a creative and equitable learning environment. Currently I am teaching a summer online chemistry class, and while I am still grappling with many aspects, I know this class and future face-to-face, blended, and online classes will benefit from the crash course which was the abrupt switch to remote learning. COVID-19 has changed many things in our society, and clearly education, like everything else, will never be the same.

Microbiology Online

By Cynthia Schauer

It has been challenging to move from the face-to-face (f-t-f) classroom to remote learning for the microbiology classes I teach at Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC). Like the rest of the world we made the switch in dramatic fashion, overnight. Those first days were spent trying to assure people everything would be okay…we would get through this. We DID persevere ….most of the students completed the semester and the grades were really similar to all the other terms.

The challenge of remote learning did not end with our Winter 2020 semester. While wrestling with technology and online learning, we started the conversations on our next steps. With 'Stay-at-Home' orders in place, what would summer term look like? Surrounded by a supportive Dean and science colleagues ready for the next challenge, the health care pre-requisite science classes (Chemistry, Microbiology, Anatomy, and Human Physiology) launched an aggressive schedule for summer term: All of these classes would be offered fully online.

Students have been very supportive of me and each other. They were delighted to have classes in which to enroll so they could continue their education. The online microbiology class relies on laboratory simulations in place of the hands-on laboratory exercises. Our college purchased an online simulation software and made it available for free to the students. I have re-written the lab exercises to help students achieve the outcomes through these virtual exercises. I have not been active in the video game scene, but now find myself wired with headphones and navigating virtual realities like a gamer!

One of the significant changes in online class delivery is the opportunity to connect the subject to personal values. We have a discussion component in the class where students read articles, summarize, and respond. These discussions have a depth that I have not had in the f-t-f classroom discussions. Another benefit is that everyone participates. Students who would normally sit quietly on the sidelines and not give voice to their incredible ideas, are now contributing in important ways to these meaningful discussions.

While I look forward to a future back in the lab and in front of a f-t-f class of students, for now, this online learning is an opportunity. I am learning a lot, and I hope to continue to integrate those successful and enriching aspects of the virtual classroom into my f-t-f teaching.