“The first thing we have to talk about is coronavirus.”
That’s what the director of the undergraduate chemistry laboratory said when all the lab teaching assistants (TAs) gathered at the beginning of the semester. Back then, our only concern was helping students who were missing class due to self-isolation after winter break travel. Since I wouldn’t be teaching my lab course until April, and the two-week isolation period would be long over by that point, this announcement didn’t matter to me; coronavirus’s only impact on my life was through news updates on my phone. However, once this changed, it changed very, very, quickly.
In mid-March, cases started to climb in Massachusetts, and rumors about MIT’s response ran rampant. No one expected any sort of shutdown. Then I received an email asking me to create a contingency plan for my class, just in case we had to go online. Then MIT announced it was sending undergraduates home. Then they urged (but did not require) graduate students to leave. Then the chair of the Chemistry Department announced all chemistry research labs would have to shut down. This all happened within the span of a week. It was a whirlwind to say the least.
After I left Boston and the dust settled a bit, reality began to sink in. I would be teaching a lab course, a course designed to give students practical hands-on experience, online. And not just any lab course, a lab course that requires the use of a biosafety lab AND a laser lab. While the chemistry education office has been incredibly helpful in the transition to online learning, I doubted they would be so accommodating as to ship each student the requisite chemicals and a class 3B laser. Also, Environmental Health and Safety would probably have something to say about that.
Having the students still do the experiment was obviously off the table, but many are seniors and need the course to graduate, so I had to get creative quickly. I came up with the idea to replace a part of the course with a simulation, where the students could model some of the data they would have collected. At a meeting with the course professor (who is also my PI) and the TA from last year (my labmate), we agreed on the simulation and decided to make a video of the laser lab portion. Lastly, we decided to drop the final presentation and instead have students do a literature review, as this would preserve the goal of improving communication skills while making the assignment easier to do at a distance and in the case of illness.
As an experimentalist, writing the simulation code was challenging, especially because I was under a time crunch. I spent about a week working with but really fighting with Matlab to get the code to do what I wanted it to do. It was stressful, but I now know a whole lot more about Matlab than I did before. It really is true that when you TA, even in introductory classes, you will learn something new.
I have also learned a lot about pedagogy and what goes into making a course. When thinking about adapting the course, I didn’t think about how to best replicate the experiment but rather how to best achieve the same learning goals in a new environment. I had to start by asking myself what exactly we wanted students to gain from the course. Then I had to assess how they would have learned this in a traditional lab setting and how we could translate that to a completely different learning environment.
After all the prep work I put in, I was excited to get back in the classroom — or in this case, a Zoom meeting. The course went surprisingly well, with a few hiccups. While everyone knows that MIT undergraduates are all very smart individuals, I was most impressed by how motivated they remained despite the unprecedented challenges and interruptions to this semester. Everyone showed up to every lab session and asked questions even though they could have watched the recordings of the sessions later. Students still turned in well written lab reports and interesting literature reviews, even though classes are being graded on a pass/no record basis.
Everyone also demonstrated a great deal of flexibility and patience. There was one “lab” session where my internet decided to oscillate in and out every few minutes. To get through this, my students kept giving me thumbs up or thumbs down to let me know whether they could hear me or not. Similarly, I was also more flexible as a teacher. Since the original plan for the class had been thrown out the window and each lab session became more of a discussion, I was happy to go on tangents related to students’ interests or move through material at a different pace than I had anticipated. I was less worried about deadlines for assignments and more concerned with making sure students had access to the help they needed and were still able to learn.
While my first year of graduate school has been filled with many things I could not have anticipated, coronavirus definitely tops the list. Before starting at MIT, I was nervous and excited about teaching. I wasn’t sure if I would prefer a lecture or lab assignment, but little did I know I would end up with a Zoom assignment. I don’t know what challenges lie ahead of me during my time at MIT; however, I do know that I am now more prepared to deal with the unexpected. After all, I already taught through a global pandemic.