Local college students, professors talk labs, quarantining in the age of COVID-19

Coronavirus

A Westminster professor says creativity, flexibility is key to success

NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. (WKBN) – College labs are hard as it is. Throw in a splash of pandemic and shot of quarantining and you have the perfect cocktail of difficulty. 

“I think, specifically with the labs, it made it a little bit harder to communicate with the teachers,” said John Cybak, senior environmental science major. “I think what helped me there was talking to some of the other students in class, and the communication between them helped out a lot.” 

Josie Barnhart, a senior pre-med biology major, said her one-week of quarantine was difficult because she is used to being active, going to soccer, hanging out with friends and doing research. 

“I’d be so excited to go out and do stuff or go and practice with my team and everything, and I’m like ‘Oh, I can’t even do that,’” said Barnhart. “Thank God I went to the grocery store because I’m in a townhouse so there’s four of us in there trapped for the whole week and we couldn’t go anywhere.” 

One of the hardest things for Cybak was some of the intangible aspects of learning that are hard, nearly impossible, to translate to online. 

“I think that some of the small interactions that you have with professors are something that you miss out on in the online,” said Cybak. “It’s a lot harder to pay attention online, so I think sometimes, you get caught up in forcing yourself to pay attention, rather than learning the material.” 

The lack of interaction is something Shannon Whitcomb, who teaches anatomy and physiology to pre-nursing students online and in-person, also mentioned. She said she aims to make online learning as active as possible by giving students hands-on activities to do and recording herself going over bone structures. 

“It’s been harder for me because we stay away, the 6-feet away, and if you ask any of my previous students, I’m always over there,” said Whitcomb. “In labs, we build such community, and we’re not able to do that as well…I just had noticed we didn’t have the chatting before class or after class, even in lecture, and I missed that.” 

To remedy the issue, they installed plexiglass dividers, and everyone was already wearing their masks, so it allowed them to act as they used to in past years. 

“If I were to do it again, there’s some software that I would use that is a little more interactive,” said Whitcomb. “I’m trying to be creative, and the students are doing well. It seems like they are retaining the information or understanding what they’re doing.” 

Speaking of software and doing it differently, chemistry and environmental science professor Helen Boylan came up with a creative way to teach students in-person and remotely at the same time. 

“You had to rethink the labs entirely because you needed to think about what was something that the students could do in a virtual setting or from their home that could also be simulated for the in-person learners as well,” said Boylan. 

She has both in her classes and frequently has labs outdoors. She attaches her phone to a hat so virtual learners can see what she sees and uses an amplifier with a headset so the virtual and in-person learners can ask questions and hear her at the same time while maintaining social distancing. 

“Basically, maybe half-an-hour of kind of showing them the techniques we were using out in the field and the students who were at home or the virtual learners were encouraged to go out to their own forests or parks and recreate that lab experience,” said Boylan. 

For her, one of the challenges was the flux of students in-person or online. One time, she physically mailed supplies to a student, but overall, they were able to make it work. 

“Listen, this semester, what we’ve learned is that you just need to be flexible and you roll with it,” said Boylan. “Sometimes the technology fails, sometimes you have fewer students in-person than you expected, you just roll with it.” 

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