Lab Life

Teaching Chemistry During COVID-19 Through the Eyes of a First-Time Faculty Member

When I set my sights on a faculty career, I knew there would be challenges, but I never expected them to include a pandemic. Yet, halfway through my first year of teaching (as a postdoc!) at Radford University, the COVID-19 pandemic hit us.

In March 2020, during the last General Chemistry II class before spring break, one of my students asked, “Dr. Jackson, are we going to die? I heard about this virus that’s spreading and people are getting sick.” I was shaken by the question. When I scanned the expressions of other students sitting around her, who were undoubtedly listening in for my response, I could see that she was not the only one feeling fear and uncertainty, and understandably so. The pandemic was playing out right before their eyes on every news channel and social media platform.

I never imagined I would have to comfort a student about anything other than a bad test grade! Despite my own growing concern about the virus, I assured her that everything would be okay and told her not to worry.

Of course, the SARS-CoV-2 virus wound up impacting our lives far more than we originally anticipated. On a professional level, it challenged me in ways I had never thought about in grad school.

Dr. Milcah Jackson, Program Specialist, American Chemical Society

My Classroom Shifts

During Spring Break, the university informed faculty and students that all classes would move online. In an instant, my world changed, and I began to panic. After just one semester of teaching experience, now I had less than two weeks to create an effective and engaging online course—something that seasoned educators had wrestled with for years! “How am I supposed to effectively teach an online course with such a short amount of time to prepare for it? Zoom classes? Recorded lectures? How do I run activities, quizzes, and exams, especially for math-heavy components, where I need students to show their work?” I had so many questions that needed to be answered in short amount of time.

Fortunately, the university’s Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning (CITL) staff provided guidance at what they dubbed “A Faculty Rodeo.” We got a quick overview of online course structure, suggestions for platforms, and recommendations for online resources. Plus, a few of my colleagues in the Chemistry department were already using a hybrid course structure and were able to advise me about creating engaging learning experiences in an online environment.

That was just the beginning of the journey. There were many kinks to iron out.

Working with Students

I used a quick Doodle Poll to determine what types of computer devices my students had access to, their Internet stability, whether they might have to share devices with others in their homes, and their preferences for Zoom classes versus prerecorded lectures. I learned that what they needed was flexibility. Prerecording lectures was my best option.

The platform would have to be free and available on any device. YouTube, which I only used for leisure at the time, suddenly became my go-to platform for teaching. At the advice of the CITL staff and other faculty, I recorded my lectures in small chunks of approximately 15 minutes or less. I uploaded no more than four videos a week to convey material that would have been covered in class. I had originally developed my course to include a packet that contained scaffolded notes (i.e., all class notes, set up with key points missing and with areas to work out calculations). My students already had their own copies to use with the videos.

Reinventing Labs

Creating the YouTube lectures was quite a task, but the more difficult hurdle was figuring out the lab component of the General Chemistry course. We had to determine which experiences would be the most meaningful for students and how to implement them without a laboratory. The curriculum for most labs during the remainder of the semester focused on different types of titrations.

Although hands-on experiments are the preferred teaching tool, they simply weren’t possible during the campus shutdown. We scoured the Internet for web-based titration activities and came across the Royal Society of Chemistry’s titration screen experiments, typically used by educators as a precursor to in-lab titrations. The site includes introductory videos and assessment activities. It covers everything from calculations to setting up and executing experiments.

Virtual Assessments

At first, I thought creating online assessments would be the easiest part of the transition. I realized I had to consider every other course students would be taking online. I had to be mindful of the amount of work I placed on my students, and I didn’t want to require more of them than I would if we were in our normal class setting.

My students were already accustomed to low-stakes assessments or quizzes, in class or as homework to prepare for exams. So I chose to give one assessment and one quiz each week on the lecture videos, along with the remaining exams for the semester. But I made one major tweak: The assessments would now be untimed and allow multiple attempts.

General Chemistry II can be math-heavy, and some students needed extra help in that area. So, in addition to attending my rolling office hours, students could work the math problems and email photos to me. I annotated those with corrections and tips (special thanks to my Lenovo Yoga Touchscreen laptop!). Students could then make corrections before submitting their final answers online, and they could also use the corrected problems to prepare for quizzes and exams.

Reality Sets In

I had felt confident that my course changes would be well received, and that my students would thrive despite the challenges of the pandemic. However, many of them returned home to situations that severely interfered with their education. Some had to work to help support their families; others had to remain isolated to protect their own health or that of those around them. Some found themselves with little-to-no Internet access, or they had to share devices with several people in their homes. They could not meet deadlines. These situations took a major toll on the mental health of some of my students, in turn affecting their work.

I offered a much support as I could. I extended deadlines and emailed coursework to students who had issues accessing the university’s learning platform. Still, by mid-April 2020, it became increasingly difficult to communicate with some of them. I learned from other faculty and the administration that some students were withdrawing to work and help provide for their families, while others were working on the front line in hospitals. There were some we could not reach at all.

With so much turmoil occurring around us, my worry over the mental and emotional health of my students intensified. To give them the space to express themselves, I created an assignment to participate in a “Vent Below” discussion board. They were encouraged to share whatever they were feeling or experiencing at the time.

The responses were varied and troubling. COVID-19 was only the tip of the iceberg. Students expressed their frustration with school progress, lack of social interaction, increasing racial tensions, government response to racial unrest, and uncertainty about their career paths. A recurring response was feeling forgotten by their friends, and even by their professors. More senior students worried about meeting graduation requirements, and the younger students hated that their first year of college was essentially torn from them.

The information wasn’t all bleak. The pandemic had also opened them up to new things—new hobbies, more time with family and pets, new workout routines, and learning to cook new recipes.

Student Input About Faculty

What I found most compelling were the comments about some of my students’ professors. Several stated that their professors would go days or weeks without responding to emails or updating grades. Others shared that some classes assigned double the amount of work they had been given prior to campus closure. Students felt Zoom and prerecorded lectures couldn’t provide what in-person classes did. Some believed that faculty should do more to promote a sense of community within courses.

This was tough for me. As a member of the faculty, I understood the pressure we were under to uphold course standards, develop new teaching strategies on the fly, and meet department and student expectations, all while we also experienced some of the same issues the students faced. However, I was still surprised at the lack of empathy some faculty seemed to have.

Learning from the Pandemic

My university built on what we learned from the Spring of 2020 to prepare for the fall semester and beyond. Faculty were provided with more resources to support their students and the shifting academic course structure. Students were given the opportunity to have some say in whether they attended in-person, hybrid, or online General Chemistry lectures. Lab courses were held in person, but with adjusted class sizes and rotating schedules. Online students were paired with students attending labs in person so they could work through all the lab steps and calculations together.

In my classes, I noticed that, although individual scores did fluctuate, the class average score on assessments did not change drastically, despite the transition. So, I chose to keep certain components of my course that appeared to resonate with students more, such as the prerecorded lectures, extended due dates, “Vent Below” discussions, and the ability to make multiple attempts to complete online activities for the Fall 2020–Spring 2021 year. I also implemented new activities that incorporated metacognition, or the students’ imaginations. I even got a paper published in the ACS Journal of Chemical Education and shared details about the strategies in a recent collaborative article published by the ACS Education Division in September 2021.

Teaching during the pandemic opened my eyes to how much students value having a sense of community and empathetic faculty, especially during times of crisis. I recognized that open communication was necessary and that students appreciate being included in discussions about how classes operate. I also learned that many of them depended on the benefits that came with living on campus, specifically as they relate to technology, interactions with other students and faculty, and for some, a safe place to live.

Many students were concerned about what was next for them, particularly the more senior ones, and as it turned out, I had that very feeling in common with them. After much thought and conversation with students and my mentors, I realized that I wanted the next phase of my career to be outside of academia, and that I wanted to use what I had learned from my teaching experience to help science majors navigate post-degree life and to position them to achieve their career goals.

I was fortunate to find such a role here at the American Chemical Society, where I manage career and professional development programs for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. Now I use what I learned as an educator to develop workshop content for in-person, hybrid, and virtual delivery; plan and facilitate ACS Career Kickstarter and Postdoc-to-Faculty workshops with active learning activities; and share resources to support students’ studies, finances, mental health, and alternative career paths for scientists.

It might not have been what I expected when I started teaching, but it has been a great experience!