Physics students in Margaret Koker and Doug Martin’s Advanced Lab class received a package at their homes just before Lawrence University’s Spring Term began, complete with an Arduino electronics kit and oscilloscopes, tools to take part in a range of physics experiments.

Students in Jason Brozek’s Intro to Environmental Policy class are using the locations of their homes as part of studies on topics ranging from EPA Superfund sites and pollution data to climate change and wind energy.

Chemistry professor Allison Fleshman is teaching a Chemistry of Art course that will lead up to a virtual art exhibit titled Art and Chemistry Inspired by COVID, where students will highlight the chemistry of the art they’ve created over the course of the term.

Tim Albright is among the Conservatory of Music professors tapping into the expertise of professional musicians around the country who find themselves in lockdown at home, with time and energy to interact with his students via virtual masterclasses.

Art professor Ben Rinehart has created a library of how-to videos as part of an art book-making class.

Those are just a handful of examples of Lawrence professors shifting gears as they’ve taken Spring Term instruction virtual amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has colleges and universities across the country using distance learning to mitigate the spread of a virus that has put much of the world on lockdown.

Keeping instruction in depth and relevant while maintaining close faculty-student collaboration has been key as Lawrence faculty have transitioned on the fly to a new reality.

Teaching through this pandemic is a challenge that all faculty can rise up to meet, said Megan Pickett, associate professor of physics and chair of the Physics Department. Students need that to happen. The world needs that to happen. And she likes the response she’s seeing from her colleagues, whether in the sciences or the humanities or the arts.

“We believe, now more than ever, that this is our time to shine,” Pickett said. “The circumstances aren’t ideal, but then (Isaac) Newton changed the world when he was at home in quarantine in 1665.”

On that note, here are five examples of Lawrence ingenuity at play, starting with Pickett and her physics colleagues.

1. A physics community

Providing students with some needed equipment was just one step in helping physics students stay connected during this strange time, Pickett said. Communication has been constant, starting well before the term began and continuing throughout. A “Virtual Zoom Commons” has been set up for physics students, an effort to keep the community together virtually despite the physical distance.

Physics faculty members are working in sync even more so than usual, collaborating and sharing across virtual classrooms so they’re ready to step in to assist if needed.

“The changes my colleagues and I have made are significant and a testament to their commitment to physics instruction, and, more importantly, how much we care about our students,” Pickett said. “Our introductory course has two lab sections, which include video demonstrations of the lab that the students then analyze, as well as a host of virtual lab experiences culled from respected online sources. Ahead of the term, we made sure each professor was provided an iPad and Apple Pencil, in order to more easily use as a digital white board in our lecture classes. We’re also exploring different ways to use phones as sensors in case we need to do more remote labs in the future.”

Physics faculty meet via Zoom
Physics faculty meet via Zoom before the start of Spring Term to prepare teaching strategies.

Zoom office hours and the virtual commons have kept the student-faculty connections tight and have allowed the students to study together in a virtual space.

“Ultimately, it comes down to how much we cherish the community we’ve created in physics, and how much we miss our students,” Pickett said. “We have been working for some time on inclusive excellence in physics pedagogy, which has shaped our view of hidden inequities and costs in our classes—so important now as we rely on technology in a way we haven’t before.”

2. A matter of geography

Jason Brozek, the Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs and associate professor of government, said he looked for ways to use his students’ varied locations as an advantage, or at least a teaching tool, during a Spring Term of distance learning. He set up class projects in his Intro to Environmental Policy class, for example, to allow students to do research and analysis that is connected directly to their home regions.

Each student has to choose two of three options for study, all tied to where they are living: Explore and interpret home region climate change data from Yale’s Climate Change Communication Program, which breaks down data all the way to the county level; use the EPA’s interactive Superfund map and Toxic Release Inventory data to dive into pollution in the student’s home region; and study wind turbine costs and policies and how that might play out in the student’s home area.

“I wanted to find a way to take advantage of our geographic distribution while also encouraging my students to engage in their local communities — safely,” Brozek said. “The course is already designed around concrete case studies that are deeply grounded in specific places — PCB pollution on the Fox River, for instance — so asking students to investigate their own communities was a natural fit.”

In his International Law class, meanwhile, Brozek is using the virtual format of Spring Term to zero in on digital topics. He has his students analyzing existing podcasts that range in topic from the Paris Climate Deal to LGBTQ asylum seekers to the International Criminal Court, then collaborating to create discussion guides for those podcasts that can be shared and used.

He said he aims to “help students have a bigger sense of purpose and connection” by having them collaborate on a virtual project that will result in useful content.

“The goal is to make all the episode links and guides publicly available at the end of the term,” Brozek said.

3. Musicians sharing knowledge

In the Conservatory, trombone professor Tim Albright is but one of numerous faculty members reaching out to fellow musicians to give students a bit of a bonus during this pandemic. With tours and venues locked down across the country, professional musicians and other artists who normally would be navigating busy schedules find themselves quarantined at home with plenty of time on their hands.

In that, Albright saw an opportunity. A former New York musician, he’s deeply connected to the NYC music scene, so he set out to invite some of those musicians into class sessions as special guests, providing his students with insights into the lives of working musicians.

The likes of bass trombonist Jennifer Wharton, jazz trombonist and composer Alan Ferber, and Carnegie Hall archivist (and LU alum) Rob Hudson ’87 said yes.

“Most of these folks are gigging, working musicians on the cutting edge of performance today, so for my students to get to interact with them in their living rooms is a huge opportunity that we wouldn’t have normally,” Albright said. “We’re turning lemons into lemonade. With no live performances happening around the world, their schedules are free and they’re jumping at the chance to connect with fellow musicians.” 

4. Art by design

When word came down that the world was going into lockdown and Lawrence’s Spring Term would happen via distance learning, art professor Ben Rinehart, a printmaker and book artist, went into tech hyperdrive. He quickly schooled himself on iMovie and Adobe Premiere software and began creating how-to videos for his students in intermediate and advanced artist book classes.

He sent each student a kit prior to the start of the term with tools and materials to complete each project. He also scheduled two virtual studio visits with colleagues in Florida and Washington.

“They are demonstrations to engage the students while we are all distance learning,” Rinehart said of his videos, which take the students step by step through various techniques in creating art books.

The first Rinehart video was on iMovie, the next 11 on Adobe Premiere, all done in the two weeks before classes started.

“Pretty proud of myself for never having worked with either program before,” he said.

For a sample of Rinehart demonstrating the Jacob’s ladder technique, see here.

5. Mixing science and art

Allison Fleshman is an associate professor of chemistry, and she’s a believer that there is plenty of room for creativity in the sciences. Hence, her Chemistry of Art, a lab science course for non-chemistry majors.

She pondered ways to teach lab in a virtual space.

“Well, the main take-away from a lab science is to practice the scientific method,” she said. “So, all of my students will make a piece of art or collection of art that inspires them, and the catch is that they must document their work — hypothesizing, observations, detailing the chemistry involved, and documenting the procedure — in a detailed laboratory notebook maintaining the highest level of scientific rigor.”

The creation of paper cranes was part of the first two weeks of the term, with each student then venturing onto their individual art projects. The Art and Chemistry Inspired by COVID virtual exhibition will be part of their final exam.

“The lab will also include many online simulations where they engage with the chemical concepts more rigorously,” Fleshman said. “But in the spirit of liberal arts, the Paper Crane Project, with a scientific flair, has connected the students using a symbol of hope known the world over.”