From home: Finding that "sweet spot"

Publication Date

This spring, Union professors in all disciplines were forced to change the way they teach. It was unfamiliar and challenging, but remote teaching and learning offered unexpected opportunities and rewards, too.

Science without a lab

Who says you have to be in a lab to do science?

That’s what Nicole Theodosiou said to herself when she decided to use actual scientists as a guide for teaching her developmental biology class online.

“I’m not going to lie, teaching remotely you can’t create the same experience that you would in person. But once you dispel the idea that you can replicate that same experience online, you discover a sweet spot,” said Theodosiou, an associate professor of biology and co-director of the biochemistry program. “For me, I realized I could give my students an experience that would reflect what it is like to be a real scientist.”

tadpoles from local ponds

Tadpoles collected by students for home labs

“In truth, scientists work in teams toward a common understanding, perform a few experiments and do a lot of thinking and writing,” she added. “I designed a team-based ‘backyard’ science lab. Students gathered preliminary data and simulated the National Science Foundation (NSF) proposal process that all professional biologist experience to support their research.”

This meant students were divided into teams to mimic a real lab environment, and each team included students playing the roles of lab technician, graduate student, postdoctoral fellow and so on. The lab technicians collected frog eggs from local ponds, raised them in their homes, treated them with household chemicals and recorded the effects on frog development. Other team members analyzed this data and studied the published literature. Then each group wrote up an NSF proposal based on their results. Finally, all proposals were peer-reviewed and scored in study sections, simulating the NSF-review process. One proposal was chosen to receive future “funding.”

“Professor Theodosiou has done a great job adapting the framework of our lab. What has been surprising to me is the fact that practicing science or carrying out experiments at home is completely doable. Although it takes some resilience and creativity, it is nice to know anyone can be a scientist,” said Christian Mastroianni ’21, a biology major who plans to become a dentist. “I do hope to get back into the classroom as soon as possible, but there have been some positive takeaways from remote learning – including interacting with recent alumni – that I would not have experienced otherwise.”

To add more interaction to her online class, Theodosiou and her students met virtually each Wednesday with alumni. These graduates talked about life after Union, the jobs they’ve had and how they negotiated job markets to create opportunities for themselves.

“It has been very helpful and interesting to hear what alumni are doing, especially during this pandemic. I think everyone is a bit worried about life after college, especially at a time like this, so it is reassuring to hear alumni speak about what they’re up to,” said Corina Lindsay ’21, a biology major who plans to become a physician assistant. “It has also been helpful that Professor Theodosiou brought in alumni from all different career paths. Although they were all biology majors coming out of Union, they each chose a different career path and it is cool to see the different things you can do coming out of Union.”

Impressed by remote printmaking

Printmaking is about making impressions.

Sandy Wimer made one of her own, showing students that the pandemic is an opportunity to innovate and to appreciate the healing power of art.

The senior lecturer of art retooled her class on printmaking and etching as a remote studio experience that could be done without the large and heavy presses in the Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts.

Before the term began, Wimer sent supplies to her 10 students. Kits included ink, copper and plexiglass plates, etching tools, watercolors and paper. She encourages the use of household items. A spoon, for example, is used to apply pressure required to transfer ink to paper. “I couldn’t believe it, but … it is working,” Wimer said.

Natalie Berg-Pappert '23

Natalie Berg-Pappert '23

The class met in synchronous three-hour Zoom studio sessions. After introductions and directions from Wimer, the students worked on their dry point etchings. “When they had a question, the rest of the class heard the question and answer,” she said. “They learned from each other, an important element in a studio class.”

The studio sessions also provided an escape. “I reminded my students that it is healthy to be making art during this time,” Wimer said. “I think it has a healing quality, even when you get frustrated with how an image is emerging.”

Natalie Berg-Pappert, a first-year art major, agrees. “Making art has definitely helped relieve my stress, one from the pandemic, but also from my other classes,” she said from her home in Geneva, N.Y. “Art has always provided a release because it allows me to forget about everything that’s been on my mind and just lets me focus on creating the one thing that’s in front of me.”

Wimer hesitates to call herself a “techie,” admitting she has had to step up for the class. But she has found plenty of help from colleagues. “I realize now the importance of the Union team,” Wimer said. “Without all these professional specialists, my online class would not be nearly as successful.”

She turned to Cole Belmont, director of Union’s Makerspace Consortium, to produce miniature presses by 3D printing to be sent to students at home. “They were over-the-moon excited about this,” Wimer said. “What is it about miniature that everyone likes? This way they experienced, in a very tiny way, how a press works.”

Julie Lohnes, director of art collections, facilitated a website for pieces from the College's Permanent Collection along with work by Wimer's former students. The site was created by Sarah Mottalini, curatorial assistant.

Wimer invited Sarah Schmidt, director of Special Collections, and Lohnes to do a presentation on hand-colored etchings using the College’s Birds of America prints by John James Audubon. Wimer hopes students can see the rare originals in Special Collections after pandemic restrictions are relaxed.

Robyn Reed, head of access services at Schaffer Library, facilitated a website for artwork by Wimer's current students that was created by Jenn Byrd, library web developer.

For Berg-Pappert, the course came as a relief. “I was very surprised (and excited) to see Sandy’s email before the term, telling us that they were going to send us the supplies for the course,” she said. “I had thought that the course was for sure going to be cancelled, but I was very glad to hear that the College was going to do everything they could to make sure that art classes and other hands-on courses would still happen.

“This was my first time printmaking and it amazed me that we could still make prints with such minimal equipment. It definitely gave me a larger understanding about the process and a broader appreciation for the discipline.”

Think like MacGyver

In "Strength of Materials," students learn to identify, formulate and solve elementary level engineering problems related to solid bodies subjected to various types of loading. Learning by doing during the lab section provides a deeper understanding of the stress-strain relationship.

“I believe that moving class online doesn’t mean sacrificing the learning outcome, but at the same time, nothing compares to hands-on experience for students,” said Yijing Stehle, assistant professor of mechanical engineering. “So we did labs at home.”

“We separated each lab into three different parts: experiment design, “MacGyver your way,” and data analysis,” she continued. “‘MacGyver’ was a 1980s T.V. show in which the main character solved complex problems by making things out of ordinary objects.”

In her class, “MacGyver” meant that students treated each lab objective as an engineering problem, and solved this problem with the tools they found at home.

“The results prove that Union students are very creative and talented,” Stehle said. “They came out with very systemic experiment designs. And they did experiments at home in a professional way with tools beyond my imagination.”

As an added bonus, some students even posted short lab demonstrations to YouTube or TikTok and got a lot of “likes.”

Art zia Zoom

Laini Nemett, the John D. MacArthur Assistant Professor of Drawing and Painting, had to change the way she taught "Life Drawing" and "Special Projects in Painting: Inside the Artist’s Studio."

Dennis Lichtman on Zoom

Dennis Lichtman (dennislichtman.com), a New York City-based multi-instrumentalist, performed via Zoom for Laini Nemett’s Life Drawing class.

“I had to pivot with both of these classes since we had to do the whole term remotely, but it went surprisingly well. In 'Life Drawing,' we used a mix of pre-recorded live model videos available online, self-portraiture and live models I hired to join us on Zoom,” she said. “For our hands unit, I had a musician friend play mandolin and clarinet while the students drew him. I also virtually brought students to Italy to visit the studios of a famous artist couple, Lani Irwin and Alan Feltus.”

“For 'Inside the Artist’s Studio,' we had weekly virtual studio visits with professional artists over Zoom. Since location was no longer an issue, I asked my students to send me their top three living artists,” Nemett continued. “This helped shape the range of artists I scheduled for studio visits. We ended up with an amazing variety of artwork and artists of all ages from different locations.”

Artists the class “visited” included Caren Canier and Langdon Quin in Troy, N.Y.; Virginia Wagner and Zaria Forman in Rensselaerville, N.Y.; Doron Langberg in Brooklyn; Will Hutnick in Wassaic, N.Y.; Dhruvi Acharya in Mumbai, India; and Zoey Frank in Colorado.

The students prepared questions before each studio visit, wrote reflections afterwards and created their own art.

“It has been invigorating for me to visit all of these studios along with the class, and extremely rewarding to see how the work of these professional artists influence the students’ projects,” Nemett said. “And with everyone currently stuck at home, it’s been particularly inspiring to see how and what these artists have been creating in this time of uncertainty, often in new makeshift home studios.”

A game teaches economics

For students in "Environmental & Natural Resource Economics," it was 1818 in Manchester, England. Textile factories were opening, competing for laborers who found themselves working long hours in unsafe conditions. The weavers were on the point of rebelling.

screenshot of Slack platform

The Slack platform students used to role-play in “Rage Against the Machine”

This drama unfolded on the messaging platform, Slack, as students played “Rage Against the Machine.” The role-immersive game was provided by Reacting to the Past, a nationwide faculty consortium housed at Barnard College.

“Rage Against the Machine” simulated adoption of the factory system for production of cotton textiles. Using in-role debate and acting-out of market processes, the game explored the complex relationships among economic growth, working conditions, protectionist trade laws, tax policy, income inequality, and environmental degradation stemming from the industrial revolution.

By entering into debate and market processes while role-playing, students experienced the full range of perspectives of differently situated people.

“Students readily recognized similarities with current tension between the priority of economic growth and the priority of environmental health and safety,” said Therese A. McCarty, the John Prior Lewis ’41 Professor of Economics. “The game set the stage for student projects focused on the relationship between economic activity and current environmental issues of their choosing.”

“Slack worked so well as a platform for the game that I will continue using it when future students play the game in person,” she added. “And I wish I could be a fly on the wall when a student’s future employer asks about prior experience with Slack.”

COVID-19 as a teaching moment

Assistant Director of Health Professions Programs Rhona Beaton usually places students directly in healthcare settings for her class, “Exploring Health Care through Community Based Learning.” This spring, she asked her students to research their own communities’ responses to COVID-19.

“I have honestly really enjoyed getting to research this. I learned a lot about the statistics and demographics of my town,” said Cecilia Sousa ’20, a neuroscience major who lives near Watertown, Conn. “I wouldn’t have delved into this without the blog project.”

A screenshot from the blog of Cecilia Sousa ’20

A screenshot from the blog of Cecilia Sousa ’20

“I was disappointed I couldn’t take the course in person, but I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to learn about the healthcare system in such an extensive way,” she continued. “It really made my education as a (hopeful) future healthcare provider much more dynamic and relevant to the actual field of healthcare.”

Students blogged about specific topics related to the pandemic: community profiles on the socio-economic determinates of health; who has access to care, who doesn’t and why; availability of end-of-life care for the terminally ill; how different patient populations receive healthcare.

They focused on their towns, which included Albany, Schenectady, Clifton Park and Ravena in New York, and Wayne, N.J., Watertown, Conn., and Hingham, Mass.

“Blogging has been extremely eye opening. It has allowed me to think more critically about the main factors that impact quality of health and healthcare in my community, as well as analyze how these factors are changing rapidly due to the pandemic,” said Grace Yotts ’20, a biology and French major from Hingham, Mass., who plans to go to dental school. “Doing the course remotely, especially through creating a blog, has allowed me to follow the public health crisis much more closely and to really think about the implications of the decisions being made by government and health institutions.”

Beaton is happy she and her students have been able to make the best of a difficult situation, and learn from it in powerful ways.

“Given that the course explores key concepts of the U.S. healthcare system and healthcare delivery, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic easily integrated into our class discussions and assignments,” Beaton said. “It was a unique experience from a teaching perspective to see the material the students were reading and watching unfold in real life around us. Not much of it was positive, especially at the beginning of the term, but it gave us all a chance to talk about it together and explore how different factors could possibly change outcomes.”

“As a group, we also faced the reality of the unknown and saw how healthcare providers delivered services in conditions no one could have imagined,” she continued. “I think the students feel a deeper motivation for their future paths and, hopefully, a deeper commitment to equity and justice.”