My “day job” is as a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, NY. We’re a small liberal arts college with an engineering program, which makes us pretty unusual, but solidly in the “elite private college” sector of higher education: our primary selling point is that we offer small classes (introductory physics courses are capped at 18 students per section), and close contact with faculty (we don’t have graduate students to serve as teaching assistants, and the same faculty teach both lecture and lab in the intro courses). We’re almost entirely a residential college; a few of our students are local and live at home, but the vast majority come from well outside the Capital District of New York; in fact, we have a significant population of students from overseas. That residential experience is also a big part of our educational package: we bring in exceptional students and surround them with other exceptional students, and those relationships with classmates are an important part of the experience.
The deserted central quad of Union College on April 7, 2020.
So, as you might imagine, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit us pretty hard. The college closed abruptly on March 12, sending students home to complete their Winter term exams remotely, and our entire Spring term (started March 30, running into early June) is being completed remotely. This is a dramatic change for a community that places a high value on close contact and interactions. Like everyone else, we’re scrambling to figure out how to make Zoom work, and how to connect with our students when they’re scattered all across the globe, and unable to meet in person.
This is particularly challenging for those of us who teach lab sciences. My department had to cancel one upper-level lab class altogether, as it required access to our particle accelerator, which obviously wasn’t a thing that was going to happen. In other cases, though, we’re finding ways to muddle through, and I thought it might be interesting to share some of the things I’ve done to adjust my class to this (hopefully temporary) new world.
(Obligatory disclaimer: What I’ll describe here will reflect my own experience and opinions, and should not be taken as any kind of official position on the part of the college. It’s purely for illustration, a kind of snapshot of what it’s like to try to navigate through this pandemic without writing the whole term off.)
I was both lucky and unlucky in that my course for the Spring term is a team-taught science-for-non-science-majors class: five of us (an astronomer, a biologist, a chemist, a geologist, and a physicist) are each doing a two-week module on our topic, with a relatively large class broken up into groups of about a dozen to rotate through the modules one at a time. On the “lucky” side, this means I only needed to prep two weeks worth of class material (that I’ll re-use five times); on the “unlucky” side, this is supposed to be a lab course, giving these students some hands-on experience with the process of scientific discovery, so I had to figure out a way to do that without being in the same place as the students.
Laser pointer in a LEGO brick holder being used for an at-home diffraction experiment.
Happily, the topic for my module is the early history of quantum mechanics, so two of the three labs I had in mind used relatively simple equipment: the first lab I had planned was demonstrating the wave nature of light by repeating the famous “double slit” experiment, and the third was a look at the quantum nature of atoms by studying the spectrum of light emitted by various elements. While it’s nice to do these in a proper lab setting, these are both experiments that can be done outside the lab, with relatively simple equipment: as noted here, you can demonstrate the diffraction of light using a laser pointer, and for the spectroscopy activity you can use a simple diffraction grating slide.
Of course, most people aren’t nerds like me who have a collection of laser pointers of various colors (I think I have eight or nine total), and the students in a science-for-non-scientists course are particularly unlikely to have these lying around. And while some people in the business world keep laser pointers for giving presentation, basically none of them keep diffraction gratings on hand to investigate the spectra of various light sources.
Laser pointer and diffraction grating sent to students for at-home lab activities
So, I ended up going to Amazon for these items. I ordered a hundred diffraction grating slides, and two dozen laser pointers that are sold as cat toys (two of them together with a fuzzy cat toy were about $10 with Prime shipping), and sent a diffraction grating to every student, and a laser pointer to those who said they couldn’t borrow or buy one on their own. The first lab activity was just to send the laser pointer at various obstacles— a thin vertical object like a needle or a piece of hair, a narrow slit in a piece of paper, and a pinhole in a piece of paper— and take cell-phone photos of the resulting diffraction patterns. This has worked about as well as can be hoped: the students have all seen the patterns they were expected to see, and some of the set-ups that they’ve used have shown some impressive ingenuity.
The third lab is to make a spectrograph out of the diffraction grating and a cardboard tube: covering one end with a piece of paper with a small slit in it, and taping the diffraction grating to the other end. Looking through this at a light source will break the light up into its component colors, and shows a clear difference between sources based on getting something hot enough to glow (which emit a broad, continuous spectrum) and those based on the emission of particular atoms (which emit a unique pattern of discrete lines at particular wavelengths).
Sample spectra from several different light sources as seen through a homemade spectrograph.
This is an activity that we often do in gen ed labs, but in a normal lab setting we have access to a range of special lamps containing particular gases to show the effect. With students constrained to be at home, it’s much harder to find good sources, but there’s a clear and dramatic difference between incandescent bulbs and compact fluorescent bulbs (which use a mercury vapor and some special coatings to produce light at blue, green, and red wavelengths in a combination that appears white to the human eye). This one’s much more of a challenge, and we’re not far enough along for many students to have done the activity, but I hope it can make the point.
Of course, not every quantum lab can be converted to work with easy-to-find materials. The experiment I planned as second in the sequence of the class was to look a the photoelectric effect, which showed that light has particle character. And, unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a good way to deal with this one in a hands-on activity. So in that case, we had to resort to simulated data analysis: I made up a spreadsheet with slightly idealized results (though I added some noise to the data) and asked students to copy the data and look for patterns in the numbers. So far, this is working all right, though what I’m learning is mostly that “non-science majors” covers a wide range, from arts majors who have never used a spreadsheet, to economics majors who can run rings around me in Excel.
Screenshot of a video tutorial on how to analyze simulated data from a photoelectric effect … [+]
The biggest challenge, of course, is working out how to connect with the students, particularly in the current strained circumstance where many of them are taking our remote classes while sharing a house and an Internet connection with parents who are under work-from-home orders and siblings who are also going to school online. Plus, they’re in a range of different time zones. All of which combines to make it extremely difficult to get everyone together for a lecture or discussion at the assigned class hour.
My solution has been to push everything to “asynchronous” mode: I pre-recorded all my lectures (again, I’m exceptionally lucky in that I only needed to do two weeks worth of material) and put them on YouTube (on the theory that Google’s bandwidth is effectively infinite, while I am less confident regarding the capacity of our local servers…). Students can work through these at whatever time and pace works best for them, without needing to worry about being online at a particular time to listen to me. For the live interaction part, I’m spending several hours a day doing open Q&A on Zoom, at three different times of day (one in the morning, one early afternoon, one in the evening) when students can drop in and ask questions.
Again, this is working out… okay. About three-quarters of the students in the first group to do my module have stopped in at least once, and I’ve had some good conversations with them via Zoom. It has meant a lot of very dull hours sitting at my computer with a Zoom meeting open in one corner of the monitor, just in case somebody shows up, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how much writing I’ve managed to get done in this mode.
Anyway, that’s a bit of a snapshot of how we’re dealing with this strange world of trying to provide meaningful hands-on experience of the scientific process to students when we can’t be in the same room with them. While the above focuses on my specific experience, from conversations with my colleagues teaching the other modules of this course and other courses in our department it’s clear that a lot of the elements are broadly shared. Faculty are taking advantage of materials that students have at home (the widespread availability of smartphones with built-in cameras, accelerometers, and timers is a huge help for teaching intro physics), and cobbling together simulations of experiments that require apparatus you can’t find outside of labs we don’t have access to. And we’re all getting better at teleconferencing— why, the other day, we almost got through an entire meeting without anybody trying to talk but forgetting that their microphone was muted.
Students and faculty at a poster session during the Steinmetz Symposium at Union College.
I spoke to a reporter about this awkward transition last week, and he asked whether this experiment with online education will have a lasting impact, which is an interesting question to consider. I think there are probably a few positive aspects that we’ll take out of this— everybody is getting better at dealing with video content, and I can see myself doing a good deal more with phone-based data acquisition in the future. And there’s certainly a place for some asynchronous instruction, making course content accessible to students outside of the defined class hours, as a supplement to in-class lecture that makes some room for additional discussion and hands-on work during class time.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think this is likely to push us entirely online or anything like that, for the reasons I mentioned when describing the college at the start of this piece. In the end, education is not just about factual content, but about relationships: between students and faculty, and between students and their classmates. Those interpersonal interactions are a huge part of the college experience, helping shape the education of every student. This is obviously particularly important the elite small college corner of academia where I work, but it’s true across the board— the difference between a small liberal arts college and a large public university is really just a shift in the balance between interaction-with-faculty and interaction-with-fellow-students. No matter where you are, your education will be profoundly shaped by the people you spend time with, both in and out of the classroom.
So, while I think we’ll come out of this with some improved technical skills in a few specific areas, I think that when it’s safe for students and faculty to gather in the same place again, we’ll all leap at that opportunity. We’re working hard to make this period of enforced online education as good as it can be, but in the end there’s just no substitute for being together. Until then, we’ll do our best to stay safe and healthy and look forward to better days.
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