Colorado College Associate Professor of Chemistry Murphy Brasuel ’96 opened his Block 7 class this spring by greeting his students with “Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening.” Standing before a blackboard in a video he shot with his cell phone, Brasuel welcomed the approximately two dozen students enrolled in his General Chemistry II course who were spread across the continental United States and overseas, taking the course online.
Moving the class, with both its lecture and lab components, online was a major undertaking, especially considering the course, which is American Chemistry Society-certified, already had been shortened by half a week due to the changes in the spring schedule caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.
General Chemistry II focuses on kinetics, equilibrium, thermodynamics, and includes some electrochemistry. It’s a prerequisite for a variety of other science classes and is taken by many Colorado College pre-health students. The course is required by medical schools, so offering it pass/not pass was not an option. Reducing the content covered in the course also was not an option, says Brasuel. “It was a huge challenge.”
Brasuel videoed the lectures, first with his cell phone and as he got more practiced at it, on his computer. Donning a lab coat, sometimes he would present the day’s lecture in front of a blackboard, which he used to help illustrate points. Other times he would video the session as he worked out the problems for students with pen and paper. The labs were presented separately by CC lecturer Jared Harris, with Chemistry Department paraprofessionals Lexi Katz ’19 and Riley O'Sullivan ’19 contributing significantly. “It was definitely a team effort,” Brasuel says.
As an analytical chemist, Brasuel says he was adept at using much of the technology involved in moving the lectures online, which was one less obstacle he faced. Still he says, distance learning can’t replicate face-to-face instruction, and he’s looking forward to when it’s safe to return to the classroom. “We did our best to work with the students; to not put them at disadvantage. But they just can’t get the hand skills they need in a video compared to in the lab.”
Harris, who conducted the lab portion of the class, also lamented the lack of opportunity for students to develop the necessary practices, or hand skills, via the distance-learning format. “Chemistry and biochemistry experiments often rely on physical skills which are ideally introduced in our general chemistry courses,” he says. Unfortunately, the students did not have the opportunity to practice and refine their skills, he says.
Although they did the best they could with the online format, Brasuel says it was impossible to replicate one of the most rewarding aspects of classroom teaching: being able to wander from group to group as the students tackle a problem. “I couldn’t walk over to a student and glance at their paper. When I do that, I can help fix their logic; I have perspective on how they are approaching the material. Sometimes there are eight different paths to get to same answer.
“But with distance learning, it was difficult to know how they were approaching the problem,” Brasuel says. “It’s hard to get a student unstuck via an email. The student has to know how to ask the question; how to formulate their question.”
Retired Professor of Chemistry Nate Bower says that “the faculty in the trenches are the ones somehow juggling the incredible demands placed on them by teaching through distance learning.” Says Bower of his colleague, Brasuel, “His in-class deft touch in reading where a struggling student is and then building on what they do know while they still believe they cannot master the material is very difficult to convert into a few lines of encouragement in an email.”
To help overcome those obstacles, the students also were required to attend online office hours, with Brasuel meeting with groups of students in the lecture section three times a week for 45-minute online office hours sessions. It wasn’t the same as in-person office hours, but it did help to engage the students as a community of learners on the topic, he says.
Harris says he and Brasuel had useful discussions prior to the start of the course which helped them clarify the learning goals of the course. “Conducting labs online was challenging and it required us to redefine our course priorities and objectives,” says Harris. “Some of these challenges are inherent to a distance-learning format, but others arose from neither the students nor faculty being truly prepared to engage in this course through an online medium.”
One of the more cumbersome aspects of the distance-learning format was not being present while the students engaged with and struggled with the material, says Harris, echoing Brasuel’s assessment.
“These are the moments when knowledge building occurs, and the remote nature of the block somewhat restricted my ability to monitor student progress in real time,” Harris says. “Additionally, I think this created some extra burden on the students since it was difficult for me to provide clarification in real time; therefore, in some instances, I think students likely spent more time wrestling with questions than they needed to.”
Ben Laidlaw ’23 would agree with that assessment. He noted he was not able to ask questions about more complex topics as soon as he thought of them, as one could do in an in-person class. However, he says the office hours and discussion boards greatly helped with that.
The input from the two chemistry paraprofessionals was invaluable, says Harris, noting that they helped him understand where instructions for labs fell short and catching details that he inadvertently omitted.
Additionally, Katz and O’Sullivan met regularly with students through Zoom — they both had an hour of “drop-in office hours” every weekday. “They both also went above and beyond by Zooming with students over the weekend when students requested,” says Harris, who had 48 students in the two labs he was responsible for [Harris conducted the General Chemistry I and II labs]. “The paraprofs were instrumental in meeting with students when I did not have the bandwidth to do so. In short, I would not have been able to manage both of my lab classes without them.”
Brasuel also added an extra credit component to the class, with the activities being provided by Bower. “Some of the activities were based on labs we have done or that have been done at other schools,” he says. “I redesigned them to be ‘home portable’ and non-toxic based on my experience developing a kit of labs that I put in my backpack to take to a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in a mud brick school in western Kenya.”
The extra credit labs were meant to provide parallel, not replacement, experiences to what was covered in the course, but without the expensive lab equipment or highly exacting techniques that professors try to instill through the usual chemistry laboratories, says Bower.
The extra credit options included an acid base activity, kinetics activities, and a colligative property activity. Laidlaw, who participated in an extra credit option (the acid base activity), says having options to choose from for the extra credit was greatly appreciated. He was able to work through the logic of the project on an individual basis, which he says was fun for him.
“Certainly on-campus, a lot of learning goes on through the ‘hands-on/minds-on’ laboratory experiences, says Bower. “So, hopefully the activities will encourage students to pursue research or more lab experiences when they get back to campus. That would be ideal.”