STEM Pandemic Moves: What To Keep

What modifications of STEM teaching should be kept after the pandemic? I attended the Massachusetts PKAL Regional Spring Meeting “Back to Normal? STEM Education and High Impact Practices Moving Forward” and heard some great talks and ideas. Here’s a much too brief summary of only a few of the presentations.

Zoe Reidinger teaches Biomedical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They begin by humanizing themself, inviting the students to share their interests, making space for students to be themselves and demonstrating that they care about them – all things they increased during the pandemic. They say “Focus on compassion”.


  • Dr. Reidinger introduces themselves, their hobbies and their pets with pictures – including humorous comments related to their course topics (for example, they mention their pets’ surface-to-volume ratios, and relate their hobbies to biomedical engineering concepts).
  • They ask the students about themselves in a survey. Dr. Reidinger points out that they got a lot more info from the students than before the pandemic, and then when they have this information about student struggles, they must be prepared to address it. Here’s their survey (PDF).
  • They ask the students (in Slack) to post:
    “What meme/GIF/song lyric/image/YouTube clip describes how you are feeling RIGHT NOW?”
    “What meme/GIF/song lyric/image/YouTube clip provides you with the support to get through the remainder of this term?”.
    They use Slack, because, like the chat in Zoom, students can all post at the same time rather than waiting for break to speak.

What will they keep when teaching face to face again?

  • They will keep digital chat, saying “digital chats are helping students to express themselves in a freer way than in in person interaction”.  Chat seems safer for some students, and they can change their names in Zoom to a letter to post anonymously.
  • They will keep their initial survey, to be able to provide more care for students.
  • Like many people, they will keep virtual office hours for the convenience of students.

They respond “Normal was a fallacy all along” in response to comments about getting “back to normal”. ___________

How were lab courses adapted for teaching during the pandemic?

Timothy Atherton teaches Computational Physics at Tufts University, which includes experimental design, simulation, data collection, data analysis and coding, all of which students could do at home.
He found that good projects involved students:

  • responding to an open-ended prompt, like “make an oscillator”,
  • constructing a physical example,
  • measuring the behavior of their example (often using cell phone apps),
  • working together to build a computational model of the behavior,
  • being prompted to reconcile the model and the actual physical behavior.

In reflecting on the experience, he observed “Zoom is bad for lectures, but good for group interactive work”.  He pointed out that the MOOC online learning model seems to be watching recording lectures, but said “What if online education was about students doing things together that reflect the practices of our discipline?

Dana Emmert, University of Findlay, quickly adapted the chemistry lab courses to conform to pandemic restrictions, by maintaining brief in-person, individual lab activities and moving activities that didn’t require the lab space online. Each scheduled lab session was divided into two halves, and students worked independently (wearing masks and distanced). Each half-section met in either the first or second half of their regularly scheduled lab time. To make up for the reduced in-lab time, prelab discussions and quizzes were completed online before the lab, and lab procedures were streamlined. Labs were recorded (for quarantined students), and data shared. There were some benefits to these adaptations. Students showed improved lab skills, independence and confidence, the smaller sections were easier to manage, and the move to online assignments streamlined grading. Moving forward, they plan to retain a focus on lab skills, students working independently (although they can collaborate), prelab videos and electronic grading.