Faculty and student talk about pandemic impact on science departments

By Tatyanna Carman

Faculty from various Rider science departments explained some of the challenges their departments have faced stemming from changes resulting from the pandemic.

Professor and Chair of the Department of Biology, Behavioral Neuroscience and Health Sciences Paul Jivoff said that the biggest change stems from the social distancing rules because it impacts how faculty can interact with students.

“We interact and work closely with students who do research in our research labs. It is very challenging to help a student learn how to use a piece of equipment or how to perform a data collection protocol from six feet away,” Jivoff said. “In our lab courses, the labs provide students the opportunity to work in small groups and interact closely with other students and their instructors to plan and conduct experiments and to collect and analyze data.”

Professor in the Department of Biology, Behavioral Neuroscience and Health Sciences Julie Drawbridge said that there has been a “significant impact” on indoor labs as a result of the pandemic.

Jivoff said that normally a lab section has 16 students, but the social distancing capacity of lab rooms now only allows eight students in the room.

“With only half the students allowed to attend [the] lab at any one time, it takes us two weeks to get through a given lab activity,” he said. “This reduces the number of hands-on experiences we can offer the students over the semester.”

According to Jivoff, all of the science courses in his department that have a lab component are still using labs. Within the 11 lab courses offered this semester, “five are remote, three are hybrids and two are in person,” according to Jivoff.

“Our labs emphasize hands-on activities to collect data, often with specialized instruments or lab equipment,” said Jivoff. “These activities cannot be replicated using a remote teaching modality. Some instructors are setting up the experiments the students would have done, then filming the experiment so the students can collect data by watching the videos, but it is not the same as students doing all the hands-on activities, particularly practicing using the lab instruments and equipment.”

He said his colleagues are either finding available alternatives or developing alternatives on their own to offer students the best experience possible in their science classes or their research laboratories.

Sophomore marine science major McKaela Jones explained the transition from in-person learning to remote learning in such a hands-on field “was not easy.”

“I [had] gotten so acclimated and used to working inside a lab where I was able to, you know, do water quality, and I was able to see different things and just collect data based off of a hands-on thing,” she said. “And changing virtually has really affected the way I learned things now. It takes a little bit more time for me to really grasp what is going on, especially when it comes to the simulations.”

Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Geological, Environmental and Marine Sciences (GEMS) Kathleen Browne said that the GEMS faculty have adapted to “provide quality instruction using techniques, some new, for remote instruction.”

“And some have been able to provide in-person learning experiences following all the proper protocols,” she said. “Several of the faculty have created in-person and asynchronous versions of the same activity to accommodate students with different needs and preferences.”

Browne said that one of the biggest challenges is creating different versions of the same exercise and “ensuring all students benefit from robust learning experiences.” She also said that another challenge is gauging student response to the learning experiences and that “interacting with students in Zoom is just different from face to face work.”

Jivoff also said that he has seen how the pandemic has affected the lives of students, especially because many of them work “either part-time or full-time, in order to support themselves.”

“As a result of the pandemic, some of our students are now working to help support their families as well,” Jivoff said. “Many of our students have family members who are in a higher-risk group for contracting COVID[-19] so the students are worried about increasing the chance of exposing those family members. I think the majority of the science students are in a science major because they like the hands-on activities that doing science offers. So, I am sure that most of our students would prefer to be taking all of their science courses in person. So I am sure that makes it frustrating when conditions created by the pandemic force them to opt for courses that are offered remotely.”

Drawbridge said that many students have taken on additional work hours, which can be very stressful.

Jivoff also shared that many of the students in health sciences do internships at hospitals or with other health care providers for their senior capstone experience, therefore, as a result of the pandemic, those opportunities have been “severely reduced or temporarily eliminated.”

“We are offering alternatives for those students, but the value of working closely with a healthcare professional in a field you hope to pursue can not be underestimated,” Jivoff said.

Jones suggested that other students find something that they can be hands-on with, like an internship, or find a job that has to do with a students’ major. Jones works as an intern at New Logic Marine Science Camp and at Calvin Klein.

“Because if you stay in the practice, and if you keep rolling with the punches, I promise you getting acclimated with the lab, again, won’t feel as hectic as it will, probably next semester, the semester after this one,” said Jones.

Browne shared how impressed she is by her students during this time.

“Each semester I have been impressed with my students’ resilience, patience and good will as they adapt to the changes,” she said. “I work hard to work with them to create great learning experiences and they seem to be equally willing to collaborate to make things work and have a strong learning experience.”

Jones added to this sentiment and also advised students to not let certain obstacles deter them during this tough time. She shared that she failed a biology class during the pandemic.

“Let that be the fuel that allows the motor to keep running,” she said. “Do not give up. Let that be your motor, your fuel, your fire–the fire under your feet. I want all my science majors to stay strong during this time. And just to keep loving what you do, because basically the world is kind of in our hands right now, by the time we grow up, trust me, we’re gonna have a lot of work under our belt, you know, so please continue to love what you do, because that’s also the fuel for your motor.”

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