Teaching through Covid

Professor Michael Hore teaching polymer physics from his home studio

Teaching through Covid

When the pandemic struck, Case professors became education innovators. They’re not done yet.

Back when life was normal, Larry Sears ’69 would prepare his students for their exploration into electric circuits in the classroom–with lectures where he could see the light, or bewilderment, in their eyes. Then he paired them into project teams for the lab. Covid 19 brought an abrupt halt to such face-to-face interaction. 


The Wittke Award winning instructor needed to find a new way to impart knowledge. Fast.


Soon into the pandemic year, students became familiar with Sears’ well-used basement office, the new epicenter of Applied Circuits Design. He had added more cameras to his computer, installed blinds to dim the sunlight, and practiced Zoom lectures on his wife, Sally, as he polished teaching from home.


He also made instructional videos to relay key skills, like how to use an oscilloscope, mindful that his students were now without lab partners, learning alone.


“They did fine, they really did,” said Sears, an adjunct professor in the Case School of Engineering. “But I could tell it was harder. It was an interesting experience, no doubt about it.”


When the pandemic struck, CSE professors and teaching assistants scrambled to design safe, socially-distanced instruction, pretty much innovating on the fly. Their novel approaches, widely introduced in the fall of 2020, continued with spring semester, which began February 1. By then, a sense of urgency had cooled into a measure of confidence. Something was working.


Curious news arrived with course evaluations in November. In the end-of-class surveys, Case students heaped praise on their teachers and in general expressed satisfaction with the quality of instruction in the time of Covid. 


Donald Feke ’76, MS ’77, PhD, the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at CWRU, reported that fall 2020 classes attained some of the highest-rated reviews of recent years.


“We took these as very good signs that students are appreciative of the efforts” being made by the university and its professors, Feke said.


Those efforts created smaller in-person classes and labs, online classes and hybrid classes–a blend of the two approaches. New teaching systems emerged, aided by technology and, often, by a professor’s personality. When the pandemic finally passes, some of the solutions may endure.

 

A video star is born

Michael Hore, PhD, had been teaching Physical Chemistry for Engineers for five years when the pandemic made his 75-minute lecture classes obsolete. His third-year students would be taking EMAC 351 remotely, and at different times, as they tuned into recorded classes from time zones around the world.


Hore, an Associate Professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering, needed to find a way to explain thermodynamics in bite-sized, pre-recorded lessons. But how?   


“I watch a lot of YouTube videos,” he said. “I bought a nice microphone and a GoPro camera and a mic stand.”


He became an academic filmmaker.


From a home office fashioned into a studio, Hore produced videos inspired by YouTube shows like “Minute Physics.” Across the fall semester, he created some 40 videos of about 30 minutes each: Colorful programs with narration, still photos and special effects.

He blended in live lectures and live office hours, where he answered questions.

“The students really liked it. They said it was engaging,” he said. “I guess it reinforces my belief that art is everywhere in science!”

Hore continued his custom video approach in the spring semester with EMAC 352, Polymer Physics and Engineering, which required a new library of videos. And he assumes he will be using the broadcast strategy into the future.

As necessity spurs invention, the pandemic pushed educators to find new teaching strategies and even to launch new classes.

Some physics professors had custom-made lab kits sent to students’ homes, to ensure that laboratory experiences were not lost. Some departments invited only a few students to smaller in-person labs for hands-on work, then had them share the results with team members. And some launched whole new courses.

New look at the land

Katie Wheaton’s students are among the most visible on campus. Every fall, you see them scattered around Case Quad, standing behind colorful tripods as they peer through total stations and measure the lay of the land. ECIV 160, Surveying & Computer Graphics, was an especially popular class fall semester.

“We survey outside, and the students were grateful to have an opportunity to be on campus with classmates in a safe setting,” said Wheaton ’01, an instructor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

But not everyone could enjoy the live experience. Two weeks before the start of the school year, the university announced it would not offer university housing to sophomores and juniors, a dramatic effort to trim the campus population. Many of Wheaton’s 30 students—about half the class–had to learn from home. Surveying the Quad was not an option for them.

“The last thing you want is for them to sit and look at PowerPoint slides on Zoom,” said Wheaton, a Gutti Memorial Teaching Award winner. “This whole endeavor to rethink our curriculum, it really makes you assess how you’ve been teaching.”

The department had been planning to add high-end computer drafting to the curriculum. Suddenly, the time was ripe. ECIV 160B, Building Information Modeling & Computer Graphics, was born. The students Zooming in from home learned how to use 3D modeling software from adjunct Phil Nagle of Osborn Engineering, an expert in BIM.  

 Since they were all on the same computer screen, they could access and learn the software simultaneously, much as if they were in a computer lab. 

“That’s been pretty neat,” Wheaton said.

In the future, she thinks she’ll keep some of the approaches adopted for remote teaching, including software training via Zoom.

“Before going into this, I would not have thought of that,” she said. “I think this challenge led to some improvements. That’s one of the happy outcomes.”

The students who missed surveying can take the venerable class this fall, provided it fits with their schedule. If it does not, the requirement will be waived, satisfied by ECIV 160B.

 

Everyone is mindful of what is lost as they seek to balance learning and safety.

 

Wish you were here

Mike Hore said exams and discussions indicated his students were learning what they needed to know.

“I would say their performance was as good as if they had taken the class (live),” he said. “I think they did well. As I told my students, I don’t think online education is a substitute for in-person. But if you take it seriously, it can be just as fulfilling—or pretty close.”

Larry Sears said he missed the playful interaction and face to face collaboration with his students, whom he now saw through a computer screen.

“I couldn’t tell if they were laughing at my jokes,” he said. “I never learned what anybody really looked like.”

Mostly, he missed the one-on-one instruction and teamwork. Applied Circuits Design is lab intensive, as students work in pairs to build and test a circuit. Now they had to do that on their own, then present their results to the class via Zoom.

Students still came into the Sears Design Laboratory in the Glennan building, but in limited numbers. They wore masks and were spaced apart.

“Teaching assistants offered guidance from a distance, but they couldn’t adjust equipment or inspect a student’s circuit,” said Sears, the lab’s namesake. “And, of course, working without a partner increased the workload and slowed students down.”

Sears added a Sunday morning Zoom lecture, which proved popular among the students. And it maybe helped that there were fewer social distractions during the pandemic.

“It was a challenge. But they frankly were not going to parties, so they probably had more time on their hands,” he said.

He’s not the only one eager to get back to live performances.

Missing the classroom

For about 50 second-year students, Christine Duval’s class is their first three-credit dive into chemical engineering. Typically, ECHE 260–Introduction to Chemical Systems–meets thrice weekly. Duval, an Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering, likes to break the class into small groups for chats, “pair shares” and project work.

Now they were all in a Zoom matrix on her computer screen. Gulp.

“I was really nervous going into it, and I was a little pessimistic, but I think it went really well,” she said. “It turns out Zoom has a lot of good features.”

Duval, whose creativity and energy had already earned her an Early Career Research grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, dove into the new format. She discovered the chat features and followed small groups into break-out rooms, which she described as “similar to walking around a classroom. You can drop in on a group and see what’s going on”–then call everyone back together to figure out a problem.

Her students learned chemical processes, how to apply the first law of thermodynamics, and the results on the final exam mirrored previous years.

“We went slower online. It’s just more cumbersome,” said Duval. “But I think it really forced you to look at your course and ask, ‘What are the concepts we absolutely want to learn here?’”

Despite her success with remote instruction, Duval was looking forward to spring semester and teaching Radiochemistry to a dozen graduate students. Because ECHE 479 is a small class, and most graduate students live on or near campus, they could meet in-person. They could hold live group discussions.

There’s still no substitute for that, Duval said.

“I missed being in the classroom,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy you get from students. The computer screen just cuts that out. Teaching is fun!”


Questions or comments? Email casealum@casealum.org.

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As they learned Circuits, Larry Sears’ students became intimately familiar with the home office of an engineer

Stage lights, a green screen and recording quality microphone helped Professor Mike Hore deliver lectures from home

“As I told my students, I don’t think online education is a substitute for in-person. But if you take is seriously, it can be just as fulfilling—or pretty close.”

— Mike Hore, Associate Professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering

Katie Wheaton

Christine Duval

“I was really nervous going into it, and I was a little pessimistic, but I think it went really well.”

— Christine Duval, Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering

To keep labs going, some physics faculty developed lab kits that allowed students to do lab work at home

Roomy work stations, small class sizes and masks allow for some in-person instruction, as with this civil engineering lab in Bingham.

NICE WORK

In course evaluations, students expressed satisfaction with the way their instructors taught through the pandemic

Forty-one percent of CWRU students filled out course evaluations at the end of fall semester, six points higher than the normal rate. The eager respondents were presented with three new, pandemic-related questions asking them to rate their classroom experience (on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 meaning “strongly agree”).

1. The structure and format of the course adopted by the instructor to accommodate the pandemic-constrained learning environment were effective
Average response: 4.33

2. During this semester, I had the opportunity to effectively engage with the instructor either virtually or in a socially-distanced in-person environment
Average response: 4.28

3. I felt that my learning in this course was successful, despite the complications of the pandemic
Average response: 4.24

Donald Feke ’76, MS ’77, PhD, the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at CWRU, sees a stellar report card.

“These results are quite good, and generally show that students were quite satisfied with their educational experience in the Fall 2020 semester despite the
complications of the pandemic,” he wrote to staff and faculty.

That’s not all. The survey also asked students to provide their overall assessment of the course. Feke compared the Fall 2020 rating to the past three years.

TERM

FALL 2020

FALL 2019

FALL 2018

FALL 2017

OVERALL RATING OF THE COURSE

3.95

3.82

3.80

3.78

The results show a higher rating for Fall 2020 courses compared to recent years, Feke observed.

The pandemic forced teachers to pivot quickly and often dramatically. Surveys show a key audience is impressed with the efforts.