AJ Vasiliou, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Middlebury, was five weeks into the spring semester, teaching her lab, CHEM 312: Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, in Bi Hall when the world changed.
Up until that point of the term, things had been going well as her group of four students learned about quadruple bonding, using the tool of a “glovebox” to run reactions in an environment that was oxygen free. But circumstances involving COVID-19 were progressing rapidly in the U.S. at that point, and during that fifth week, the College administration announced a difficult decision: they were sending students home a week early for spring break and then shifting classes to remote learning.
Vasiliou’s first thought was, “How in the world am I going to teach my lab?!”
Because bringing home the large lab equipment for teaching moments online was impossible, the first thing she did was to check the Internet to see if she could find already available platforms for physical chemistry. The answer was no. “I was going to have to come up with new content,” she says. “And I was going to have to get creative. The concepts I’m teaching are very complicated and math heavy. It’s hard enough to get students excited about class. I had to figure out a way to keep the online lab from being boring.”
The last day they were together on campus, Vasiliou surreptitiously took photos of the students as they worked with the equipment. She was then able to later use those photos to help keep students engaged in an interactive PowerPoint on synthesis she created. Humor was also a must. She started making videos, including one using her young children to illustrate entropy. ”An underlying principle of entropy is the idea of disorder, and as I watched my two- and five-year-old running around the house, it was as clear an example of disorder as one could come up with—so I just turned on the camera.” Another tactic was to take a different look at quadruple bonding and focus on the characterization of bonding. She has researched the historical aspect of this type of chemistry and has used that for the basis of one of her lab classes.
But the actual shift from being in a classroom (she also teaches a class on thermodynamics with 18 students) to teaching remotely has had its ups and downs. She’s had to learn about Zoom, and often just when she thinks she has it down, some new glitch occurs. At one point she was in one Zoom room and her students were in another. But complications don’t just come up for her. “We assume that students know all this technology, but they don’t necessarily. They know the system on campus—get yourself physically to class—but they don’t always know how to navigate the online arena. They have to be responsible for reading my notes, watching online videos, and navigating Canvas at an extent that is new to many of them.” The technology can be a barrier to learning.
Not only that, but her students’ accessibility to the internet is all over the place. One student can only access the class on a phone. Another lives in a home with several elderly relatives and has trouble with privacy. Vasiliou has tried to tackle some of the problems up front. “I looked for the platform that can generate the smallest video size and found Panopto. I would have gone with Zoom, but the video size is too large for a phone.” She tries to make content available in manageable forms and is very clear and consistent about posting it so students can access it.
“And I try as much as I can to meet one-on-one with students who are struggling. It’s important to make this whole experience equitable to all.”
Faced with a whole new way of teaching, Vasiliou says, “We do the best we can for our students even in unexpected circumstances such as these, but my favorite part about teaching is seeing and interacting with my students in person. Simply put, I miss them and cannot wait to share the classroom again with them.”
This story is part of our new magazine channel “Dispatches,” in which we will be deliver new content to readers on a weekly basis. You can read more about this effort here.