Department to make all lab and lecture classes online
By Sela Marino
The Western biology department made the decision to have all online classes for fall quarter. This came before Western made any official statement about whether or not classes would be held in person.
The decision was not an easy one to make, according to Benjamin Miner, biology professor, department chair, and soon-to-be department head.
“It was a difficult decision that everyone in the department had to make,” Miner said.
Miner said that under current circumstances, all faculty are willing to have online classes in the fall and provide guidance to students for that learning environment.
“Our main motivation for making the decision sooner than later was to allow people to start planning for fall,” said Merrill A. Peterson, head of the biology department.
Both Peterson and Miner said that part of the reason was to give faculty enough time to make preparations for fall, and so students could make the decision to return to Bellingham or not.
“We decided for online instead of entirely or partially in-person in part because of the sheer number of students who take our courses. We could not think of a way in which we could teach in-person courses in a way that would ensure safe social distancing, including spacing of individuals and frequent cleaning of instrumentation and other frequently touched surfaces,” Peterson said.
A common question being asked by students on the WWU subreddit is, what will this mean for lab classes?
Peterson said, this quarter, all of our lab classes are being run online, but how they are being run varies from course to course.
“In some cases, the faculty, staff, and graduate TAs have been recording demonstrations of the labs that are normally run in person, so that students can see the procedures before being given data to analyze,” Peterson said. “In other cases, we have adopted digital lab exercises that have a proven track record from use over many years at other institutions.
Peterson also said that they have lab courses in which students can run experiments at home or work on open-ended research questions, that make use of available online datasets to help them develop analytical and critical thinking skills.
Western second-year, Sophie Paradis, is currently taking Introduction to Organismal Biology, which is a lab class. For her class, she said they do the labs on their own, with an open lab notebook, discussion, quiz and a write-up.
Paradis said while she does like her biology class, she prefers to have labs be over Zoom or have the ability to ask questions while she’s doing the lab.
Paradis’ Principles of Physics II class has their labs over Zoom.
“The classes are alright,” Paradis said. “It can be hard to stay motivated.”
She also said that the classes are easier if it’s a good teacher and they’re organized.
Miner said that he was able to get good feedback from his students and was able to make adjustments on the fly as spring quarter progressed.
Miner’s class is synchronous and his students aren’t required to show up, but finds that his students almost always tune into class. Since Zoom automatically records, it’s easier for students to go back and watch previous classes.
Miner mentioned that although students will be missing out on being able to utilize the science equipment, and students and teachers will have to devote more time to their classes, it’s better.
Peterson said that the instructors have also been regularly sharing ideas about teaching online, based on their experiences and what they are hearing from students.
“With the knowledge that they will have adequate time to prepare, a luxury that none of us had for this quarter, they are already thinking about how they will teach their fall courses,” Peterson said. “I’m sure that they are looking forward to the student feedback they will get at the end of the quarter that will help shape those plans.”
Peterson said that there have been some switches in fall teaching assignments to ensure that fewer people will be teaching a given course online for the first time.
“I have also been working with our faculty and student ambassadors, who have been developing a survey that will help us and other CSE programs more fully understand many of the dimensions of the student experience this quarter,” Peterson said.
Peterson said that the decision to return to a letter grading system or keep the pass/no pass isn’t a decision for the department to make and is something being handled at the administrative level.
Miner said that the hope was to give students a heads up for the fall, and is suspecting the same type of process all next year.
“We did not want to commit to and plan in-person classes only to have to switch suddenly to online teaching immediately before or during the middle of the quarter, should there be a flare-up in COVID-19 cases,” Peterson said.
Peterson said that these unprecedented times have created complex challenges in which there are no great solutions, and part of what has added to the stress caused by the pandemic has been a profound sense of uncertainty about what the future holds.
“We are hoping that by offering clarity into what our department will be doing in fall, our decision can help ease some of that stress for our students, faculty and staff,” Peterson said.