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A Wooster Geologist goes virtual

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Wooster, Ohio — We can’t let the eventful year of 2020 to pass without some record in this blog of how these difficult times profoundly affected Wooster’s Department of Earth Sciences. Along with the rest of the American educational system, from kindergarten through graduate school, we had to adjust to the extraordinary circumstances of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Here I briefly describe my own experiences since the emergency evacuations and lockdowns of March. My fellow Earth Sciences colleagues (Professors Meagen Pollock, Shelley Judge, and Greg Wiles, along with our administrative coordinator Patrice Reeder and technician Nick Weisenberg) have their own stories they may tell later. (The top image is of a cameras-on moment in my History of Life class last month.)

I had the least-complicated arrangements for pandemic teaching in our department. For medical reasons I was remote from the start following Spring Break in mid-March. I didn’t set foot on campus for months, teaching entirely from my basement “studio” through my Mac laptop (see above). I was never in the “hybrid” mode of teaching (both in person and online), so the various “pivots” from in-person to remote did not change my routine.

My story starts with a delightful Spring Break field trip to southwestern Utah for Independent Study research with (left to right) Juda Culp (’21), Will Santella (’21), Dr. Shelley Judge and Nick Weisenberg. We had an excellent and productive time until, midway through, we were called back to Wooster and sent home with the rest of the College. The image above now seems from a lost world. At the end of March we resumed our courses in remote mode, which was new for all of us. This was when I was introduced to the video and course management program Microsoft Teams, which has become a dear (if occasionally frustrating) friend. I thus began to climb the steep virtual learning curve in the second half of the 2020 spring semester.

During the summer my teaching colleagues and I had numerous workshop sessions organized by the College. They covered not only the endless technical video classroom details, but also the principles and goals of virtual teaching. I was a highly motivated participant, mainly because there were so many ways it could go wrong! I learned the most from fellow faculty members who had also endured that post Spring Break remote teaching interval. We were forced to adapt and innovate quickly then, so the time in the summer spent practicing the various modalities increased my confidence.

My basement studio has a dingy real-life background, so I used dozens of virtual backgrounds to hide it. These projected backgrounds themselves became part of the day’s topics, so I had fun choosing from dozens of images I uploaded. This is my favorite one-with-the-bryozoans backdrops.

During the Fall Semester I taught History of Life (two-thirds of my 30 students pictured at the top of this post) and Paleoecology (16 students). My courses were synchronous and live, meaning that at 8:00 am I met virtually with all my students who were in time zones that were compatible. The magical 8:00 am was convenient because places in the far east, like China, were about 12 hours different, giving those students a reasonable evening hour to meet. For most of the semester about half my students were on campus; in the last few weeks most students were in their homes. For those students who could not make our live sessions (it was 4:00 am in Alaska!) I recorded each class through the Microsoft Teams system. I had two office hour sessions every week to answer questions. The system worked with almost every student who could being present live for class. This made teaching much easier with student questions, comments and expressions. We even developed a Google-it tradition where when I couldn’t answer a question someone was assigned to find answers. Within a couple of weeks we had the online-teaching system down with all the muting-unmuting, electronic hand-raising, and cameras on and off. I’m very grateful to my students for making our sessions so much fun, each time transporting me out of my basement into our learning community.

Brachiopod-rich storm layer in the Liberty Formation. Note the circular bryozoan attachment.

I very much missed having rocks and fossils available to students, since I had no labs. Nick made a special solo trip into the Upper Ordovician rocks of southeastern Indiana to collect fossils to mail to each student in the Paleoecology course. A typical slab of brachiopods is shown above. These specimens gave the students some physical objects to associate with the course material. Each student in Paleoecology also gave an online presentation on their course research project, which was fun and extended the range of the course.

Next semester I will be teaching the Sedimentology & Stratigraphy course, again fully remote. I want to expand our use of specimens, so Nick and I assembled 25 sedimentary rock sets, one of which is shown above. Nick carefully cut and labelled the specimens. Each student will receive a sample set, which I plan to use for examples and unknown puzzles. They will also have handlenses and grain-size cards.

This is what 25 sample sets looks like! Thank you again, Nick Weisenberg.

We all hope, of course, that soon we can meet students face-to-face and be back, buzzing with enthusiasm, to our wonderful Scovel labs and classrooms. In the meantime we are making the best of our online tools and communities. Again, this is an account of my experiences. Every faculty member has a unique narrative. We all know how fortunate we are to have positions that enable us to work safely online, and to have such supportive and ingenious support staff as well as extraordinary leaders in the college administration. May the year 2021 bring us all relief and happier times.


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