Dyson students and faculty are finding ways to stay connected and engaged in teaching and learning—from a distance.
Since March 11, 2020, when Pace University moved to remote learning as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, students and faculty have been finding ways to adjust.
“I am very proud of the way Dyson’s faculty and students have quickly adapted to the new normal of remote teaching and learning during what is surely a trying time for many,” says Dean Nira Herrmann, Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. “It’s a demonstration of our students’ commitment to their education and of our faculty’s dedication to creative solutions that work.”
How have they replicated the hands-on aspects of liberal arts learning such as science labs and performing arts classes? What about the fact that for many students struggling with financial concerns and upended living arrangements, academics may not be top-of-mind? Here’s a closer look.
“Flexibility and an awareness that, over time, things are going to change, that’s the message I’m [sending],” said Professor Marcy Kelly, chair of the Biology Department in New York City.
She has replaced her traditional instruction with a blend of online tasks and shorter meetings via the Zoom virtual conferencing platform, which includes breakout time for students to meet in smaller virtual groups. Online assignments and review have been organized around the digital platform established in conjunction with the course textbook, and a series of videos that Kelly has curated.
Reconfiguring her courses has taken some time, and Kelly hopes her effort will make completing the classes feasible for all of her students, all of whom are dealing with varying circumstances, some in different time zones. To that end, she has also created a to-do list for each week, and gives students options when it comes to working on assignments together. If it’s not practical for them to work via Zoom, they can choose to collaborate via shared files.
“I don’t think [synchronous instruction—requiring students to meet together at a specific time for a set duration—] is a great idea,” said Kelly. “Literature suggests that
doing the typical lecture-style isn’t really pedagogically ideal online.”
My goal is to make [students] feel like they just left lab.
Like Kelly, Antonio Herrera is also focused on meeting students where they are. A lecturer in the Biology Department on the New York City campus, he has one big objective for his lab class of mostly first-year students.
“My goal is to make [students] feel like they just left lab,” said Herrera.
That means finding new ways for students to work together and engage with each other, the way they normally would. To enable opportunities for remote interaction, Herrera is also using the breakout room functionality on the Zoom platform, but instead of permitting students to work in their previously assigned lab partner arrangements, he’s randomly assigning them to the virtual groups. This has allowed students who might not have associated in person to collaborate, and Herrera says students are enthusiastic about the approach; in some cases, they’re staying on the video conference calls and continuing to work even after the session was scheduled to end.
Herrera and his students are also exploring resources available through JoVE, the Journal of Visual Experimentation. Newly accessible content includes high-quality video of experiments and lab techniques.
“Many things that I thought were impossible to conduct remotely in a lab became a reality,” said Khaela Gardner ’22, Biology. “This includes completing assignments which require us to measure specimens and examine them on a microscope and in this way it makes it feel exactly like an in-person lab course.”
As much as they’re hoping any kind of schoolwork provides a diversion from the stress and anxiety caused by the coronavirus, both Herrera and Kelly have also been engaging students by focusing on the pandemic. Kelly has set up a viewing party featuring the 2011 film Contagion, by Oscar-winning filmmaker Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven films, Traffic), and students in Herrera’s Biology and Contemporary Society lab course are creating an array of four infographics designed to clearly present basic information several underlying aspects of COVID-19.
“The goal is to give them the opportunity to do something about COVID-19, and to give themselves answers as they have a great many questions,” said Herrera.
When it comes to his students’ wellbeing, Melvin Williams, an assistant professor in the Communication Studies Department, is leading by example.
“I called the New York COVID-19 Mental Health Hotline, told my students about the experience, and urged them to do the same, if needed,” said Williams. “I want them to know that we can, and will, heal together.”
Williams, who teaches both general and upper-division courses, started by hosting a Zoom meeting to find out what his students needed and wanted out of a remote experience. Conversation included a frank discussion of students’ new normal, and he acknowledged the grief that many may be feeling over the loss of those moments that define the college experience, such as senior year memories, honor society inductions, and social gatherings.
I called the New York COVID-19 Mental Health Hotline, told my students about the experience, and urged them to do the same, if needed. I want them to know that we can, and will, heal together.
Williams’s coursework now includes recorded lectures that are accessible to all students on-demand, regardless of time zone differences and technology challenges. Additionally, he uploads weekly “Happy Friday” encouragement videos to applaud his students for their academic progress and tenacity.
“The current situation empowered me to learn more about Blackboard and Zoom's various functions,” said Williams, who previously had taught hybrid courses mixing face-to-face and online instruction. “Instead of panicking, I chose to engage this moment as professional development, as I reassessed how I can better leverage online resources in my course instruction.”
It doesn’t get much more hands-on than a studio art class, so Eve Laramée, a professor in the Art Department and director of the Center for the Arts, Society and Ecology, was somewhat surprised to find that the abrupt transition to remote learning was fairly seamless. Laramée has been using a full range of tools including Blackboard, email, online videos, video tutorials, short films, and LinkedIn Learning, while also giving some instruction during regular class time and holding remote office hours at her regular time.
“This provides regular structure for all of us, and that helps keep things feeling ‘normal,’” said Laramée.
She makes exceptions for those who are far away—one student is in Kuwait and another is in India—and has modified project assignments as well.
“Students upload or email photographs of works in progress so I can provide ongoing feedback, and then upload finished works in the form of photographs to Blackboard, or email them to me, or both,” said Laramée.
This provides regular structure for all of us, and that helps keep things feeling ‘normal.’
She has also provided lists of alternative materials for those who do not have access to their regular art supplies, and encourages all of her students to use their art as a way to destress and to process everything that’s going on. She suggests that they try listening to music while creating their projects for class, and has modified assignments, giving students the option to address COVID-19 in their work.
“The assignments I give and the students’ responses are all about meaningfulness, because that’s what art is, creating meaning for culture and society,” said Laramée.
Most importantly, she’s remaining conscious of the fact that her students may still face various challenges, in spite of her best efforts.
“I’m communicating frequently with the students who are having difficulty moving to online learning due to their lack of access to a computer, lack of digital skills, or those learners who are more kinetic learners, kinesthetic learners, or right-brain dominant intuitive learners,” said Laramée.
Dyson Scholars in Residence
What does remote education look like for the Dyson Scholars in Residence (DSIR) program, built around the very idea of living and learning together?
“We have always had a robust use of our Blackboard site for submission of any student work, so that continues for the academic [portion] of the class,” said Associate Professor of English Jane Collins, DSIR’s program creator. “Our greatest challenge was finding a way to continue our service project for the Successful Learning Center (SLC) [a community program providing a college experience for alternative learners and students with developmental disabilities].”
In our first [virtual] class together, the [SLC] students made short films that consisted of monologues which, when connected together, created a story. All of it was improvised; the DSIR students took the assignment I gave them and made it work.
At its final in-person meeting, the class committed to continuing to serve the SLC students until the end of the semester as planned, and began brainstorming virtual projects and ways to connect via Zoom.
“In our first [virtual] class together, the [SLC] students made short films that consisted of monologues which, when connected together, created a story,” said Collins. “All of it was improvised; the DSIR students took the assignment I gave them and made it work.”
A big part of the partnership between the Dyson College students and SLC is providing mentorship and friendship, and Collins says she believes that aspect has been retained even in a virtual format.
“Seeing the kids from the SLC program smile on the screen makes me happy, like I did something productive during my day by making someone else's a little better,” said Austin Duffy ’22, Digital Cinema and Filmmaking.”
Pace Performing Arts
When the spring 2020 semester began, students taking Pace Performing Arts’ PAGE 273: Theater of the Oppressed course planned on completing a service learning project with Falconworks Theater Company, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. That changed when Pace transitioned to remote learning and social distancing became the norm, but Reginald Flowers, the adjunct faculty member who teaches the class, moved quickly to find an alternative. Working with the “Calling Saves Lives” initiative, students are contacting members of at-risk communities in Red Hook to check in and assess needs. This includes asking basic questions about individuals in the household to determine specific risks or concerns during the shelter at home period.
“The ‘Calling Saves Lives’ initiative brings a web platform together with volunteers to track their progress as they deliver survey questions to members of at-risk communities. The data is delivered to city agencies responsible for intervening on the public’s behalf,” said Flowers. “It will also create a rewarding opportunity to the students and contribute to their own wellbeing by giving them a purpose during this trying period.”
Falconworks ran a similar program following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and at that time, the class worked with Carlos Menchaca (D-District 38), who was elected to the New York City Council in 2013. Menchaca connected Falconworks with community organizer Carlos Jesus (CJ) Calzadilla, who was in the planning stage of the Calling Saves Lives program, said Flowers.
Environmental Studies and Science
During this time of stay-at-home, we’re all getting an opportunity to experience our personal environments perhaps more than we’d like. Department of Environmental Studies and Science Clinical Associate Professor Michael J. Rubbo, who is teaching ENV 344: Habitats of the Hudson Valley, had to find a way to give students the experience they expected with the field-based course.
“I take the students out weekly to visit habitats throughout the region to assess their condition, so going remote presented a challenge,” said Rubbo. “To address this, I have weekly Zoom lectures with the class and have created virtual field visits instead of in-person trips.”
I take the students out weekly to visit habitats throughout the region to assess their condition, so going remote presented a challenge. To address this, I have weekly Zoom lectures with the class and have created virtual field visits instead of in-person trips.
He has gone out alone to the various natural locations and created his own videos, which students watch and answer follow-up questions via Blackboard. “I’m no David Attenborough, but when life gives you lemons…” said Rubbo.
Editor's Note: Dyson College and response to COVID-19 remains an ongoing story. If you'd like to share information for any future updates, please email us at email@example.com.