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Physics Professor Details How Program Has Adapted To Online Learning

Teaching any subject virtually is a challenge in and of itself, but how do professors teach things like thermodynamics or have science labs?

Physics Department Chair Toni Sauncy offered insight into how the STEM fields, including her area have adapted to going completely online.

“We are fortunate in physics because there is a robust community of educators that began immediately sharing resources when there was a hint that we might be going to a remote delivery system around the country,” she said. “We have participated in list-serves and online gatherings of educators teaching at all levels where folks from around the country shared everything from complete lab write ups for remote learning to advice and warnings about what does not work.”

One of the most amazing things she observed is how everyone in the physics community was so willing to be completely honest about what worked and what did not when it came to virtual teaching.

Additionally, she said there has been such a refreshing attitude about what educators are learning about how students learn, and how they can use this experience to enhance student experience when classes return to “normal.”

“For example, I will always from now on conduct oral interviews as part of my exams and move much of my ‘high stakes’ exam assessment to more frequent, lower stakes check-ins to make sure students are learning and redirecting when needed,” she said.

Labs are the most challenging part, she says and for some of the newer non-majors labs, students met intermittently, carrying out simulation-style experiments.

“For advanced labs, we had just completed data acquisition on some cool new thin films labs (i.e. the awesomeness of playing with soap bubbles) that I had never done in a class before, so we spent the last few weeks analyzing data,” she said. “For one of the labs, we hope to write it up and submit it to a teaching journal for others to use. For my freshman physics classes, I have used a fantastic app that accesses the state-of-the-art sensors within every mobile device. For one lab, I asked students to use the app to analyze rotational motion which meant we had to figure out a way for them to sling their phones around in a circle while recording data on the phone with the app. They went off on their own during our lab time and collected data that was surprisingly credible and provided an excellent lesson on centripetal motion and the right hand rule.”

Understandably, Sauncy says students were trepidatious about the advanced theory courses like thermodynamics. However she and her colleagues worked diligently to reassure them at every turn.

“We understand the challenges that they faced and are still facing,” she said. “We understand that being isolated from your learning community in one of the most challenging courses any undergraduate will face is daunting. We believe that we have been able to facilitate a reasonable proximity to the experience students would have had before by using lots and lots of online face-to-face meetings with students, arranging for small group work via Microsoft Teams and Zoom, and really just stepping up the communication between us and our students – office hours are now really office days.”

She also sees how all of TLU’s STEM programs have done a great job transitioning to a remote lifestyle, put their creative problem solving skills to good use over the last seven weeks.

Despite this, she sees the general mood of STEM educators and admits the majority are nervous about the prospect of long-term science and math courses taught virtually.

“Our labs are vacant, and our equipment and instruments sit idle,” she said. “For many of us, our best days are in those labs, where even though it may be a lesson that we have presented a thousand times, we find delight every time a new student has that Aha! moment for the first time. That’s something that is extremely difficult to replicate in an online learning environment. The virtual equipment, even in the best simulations, does not break, so there are no lessons in repair and creative problem solving that only happen in the laboratory environment. We miss those moments, even the moments of frustration when nothing is working right and our data terminals stand temporarily empty, because we know that they will be followed—at some point—by a that moment of discovery we live for as teachers.”

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