Henry Ford College STEM Labs During the Pandemic

Students in Organic Chemistry Lab following social distancing measures and other additional safety protocols. Photo taken by Yasmeen Berry

Photo credit: Students in Organic Chemistry Lab following social distancing measures and other additional safety protocols. Photo taken by Yasmeen Berry.

With increasing COVID-19 cases at colleges and universities, facilitating student safety and success while also minimizing virus spread continues to be a challenge. In early March, Henry Ford College announced, based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Michigan state government, operational changes were to be made for the rest of the Winter 2020 semester. To ensure the safety of HFC students, faculty, and staff, many courses instructed at HFC rapidly adjusted to the shifting circumstances. As many of the courses adapted to virtual instruction, instructors of fundamentally hands-on courses faced particularly challenging transitions.

Many examples of these courses at HFC fall under the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). STEM needed to decide which of its courses could be effectively taught virtually, and which needed to impose stringent safety precautions on campus. This was necessary to minimize the risk of virus spread during necessary laboratory-based face-to-face instruction.

As the college enters its sixth week in the Fall 2020 semester, STEM faculty share their perspectives on how they have been able to face the challenges that come with this new pandemic-based teaching environment.

STEM Dean Janice Gilliland describes the department’s collaborative approach being used to decide how to conduct classes throughout the year. “During the summer months, many hours of discussion about how to return to campus safely occurred with faculty, department chairs, and other administrators,” Gilliland said, “The School of STEM is lucky to have public health experts, immunologists, chemists, and others who really understand infectious diseases and can make excellent recommendations for keeping students and faculty safe.” Through these circumstances, she remains optimistic regarding potential long-term implications for the way STEM disciplines will be taught moving forward. “Perhaps the quick move to remote teaching and learning will uncover some new practices that can be retained in order to provide the best learning experience and flexibility possible to students,” Gilliland states. Dean Gilliland also wants to emphasize to students that if they are in need of support, “the Learning Lab, Library, and Assisted Learning Services are all active online. The Associate Dean Gillian John and myself are always here to help as well.”

During these training sessions that Dean Gilliland mentioned, instructors were provided with online learning support. Through the College’s Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation (CTEI) and the college eLearning Team, this online learning support helps combat the inevitable learning curve that comes with transitioning coursework to a virtual environment. However, even with this increased support, instructors still faced the challenges that came with the pandemic’s short timeframe for adjustment. This is especially true for Dr. Jolie Stepaniak, an HFC Biotechnology Program Lead and Biology Instructor that needed to simultaneously take on this virtual learning curve and help to pilot safety protocol for faculty and students during on-campus instruction.

When asked how the pandemic impacts her interactions with students in her online courses during the semester, Stepaniak replied, “I enjoy the face-to-face classroom experience very much. Moving online obviously removes that kind of opportunity to interact with students.” To help with this transition, Stepaniak describes how she holds regular Zoom meetings with these classes to facilitate real-time discussion. She also provides opportunities for students to individually interact with her through hosting Zoom “office hours” and increased email correspondence.

As Stepaniak is finding new ways to communicate with her students, she recognizes that there are obstacles to having an effective online learning experience. “The two big issues I see with online learning are student engagement and academic dishonesty. It’s easy to engage students in a face-to-face classroom. It’s much harder to keep students engaged online.” To address these concerns, she describes how many Biology Instructors are deciding to shift the focus away from exams and towards increasing the amount and variety of students activities. Stepaniak hopes that through this shift, “students are spending more time with the material and hopefully interacting with it in a more meaningful way.” She hopes for students to think about completing the coursework as more as an adventure rather than a chore. This way, students can maintain a positive attitude and make the most of learning during these changing circumstances. She tries her best to provide her students with support and wants them to know that she is always advocating for their success.

Dr. D. Todd Whitaker, an HFC Organic Chemistry Lecture and Laboratory Instructor, agrees with Stepaniak’s statements on academic dishonesty as he states, “My courses are prerequisites for Medical, Dental, Veterinary, and Pharmacy schools. There is nothing that scares me more than to think that a student got into one of those programs using someone else’s work.” In discussing the long-term implications of this drastic shift to online learning for students, he states that “together we are trying to make the best of a bad situation.”

Fortunately, some instructors have been able to gain access to the same technology that they had used to teach on campus through a longstanding Professional Improvement Fund (PIF) negotiated with the administration. Whitaker was able to use this new technology to his students’ benefit over the Winter Semester to create nearly 100 videos to further clarify the difficult chemistry concepts being covered. He mentions that this is also an added benefit for future students, who will have access to this new library as an additional resource.

In regards to being able to handle the increased precaution measures being implemented for on-campus laboratory instruction, both Dr. Whitaker and Dr. Stepaniak cited their appreciation for the efforts of the HFC Laboratory Associates. “These Laboratory Associates have done an outstanding job supporting on-campus laboratory activities, and we absolutely could not provide students with laboratory experiences without them”, Stepaniak remarks. As students can no longer share materials as they could in a non-pandemic setting, Stepaniak explained the increased pressure that these associates face when handling experiment materials before and after laboratory experiments are conducted.

Of the Associates admirably combating the challenges of this increased responsibility, one prime example to note is Chemistry Laboratory Associate Alice Hull. Her experiences reflect those of many early on in the pandemic, when her laboratory position was temporarily laid-off. As she was called back to work on setting up the Organic Chemistry labs for the completion of the Winter Semester courses, she reflected on how her job “always included a focus on safety, but the safety precautions needed for keeping everyone safe on campus during the pandemic was at an even greater level of detail and importance.”

Hull went on to describe how initially she was worried and apprehensive about returning back to campus. “I didn’t even want to leave my house to go grocery shop”, Hull said, “but I have parents who are high-risk and had to help them out with basic needs.” She finds that “things have become a bit easier and less stressful, but when I walk the empty campus on breaks, things seem so empty and sad and still very surreal.” It is this realization that many returning to campus are finding to be the new norm.

Over the summer, Dr. Whitaker worked with Ms. Hull to implement new safety precautions to continue in-person laboratory instructions for students during the previous Winter and upcoming Fall semesters. Through this collaboration, they have been able to implement many additional safety precautions: including continually disinfecting laboratory surfaces, cutting student laboratory capacity by half, seating students more than six feet apart, and requiring students to wear masks, gloves, and safety glasses at all times upon entering the laboratory environment.

Whitaker finds that with steps such as these, they “have lowered the risks to students significantly and will continue to look for ways to provide a safe environment for student success.” While Dr. Whitaker and Ms. Hull both agree that students have been cooperating with the rules and protocols well, Hull adds that she occasionally needs to give gentle reminders to students to make sure the masks are being worn correctly. She states that she will “jokingly tell the students that I am the mask police and that this is the new, glamorous part of my job”. Hull believes that taking a lighter comedic approach helps students better cooperate and understand that she is just trying to keep everyone safe. “They were true COVID warriors serving as role models for all future students during these challenging times” Whitaker says as he commends his students’ cooperation efforts with the new safety protocols over the Winter Semester.

As students navigate through this unique Fall Semester, Whitaker’s words of wisdom and encouragement for students are to “be kind to each other. We are all in this together and we can get through this.”