While many SRU students this year are attending classes from their couch or bed, some are in the classrooms, navigating complex assignments under not-so-normal conditions.

When the university announced their fall reopening plan in July, administrators looked to ensure classes that provide hands-on learning which could not be replicated online would continue in some fashion on campus. Although they had an idea of what those classes would look like, it was up to the faculty to put the plan into action.

Ashley Loe was one of many faculty members who had to adapt the laboratory portion of her Biochemistry I class into a safe and socially distant course that retained as much of the benefit of hands on experimentation as possible.

Her course is one of 43 being taught multimodal this semester by the College of Health, Engineering and Science (CHES), according to Michael Zieg, interim dean of CHES.

While students on campus are required to wear a face mask at all times while indoors, the mask has not been difficult to work with in a course that requires students to wear goggles and other personal protective equipment while working.

One of the biggest changes brought to her class however, has been the elimination of lab partners. In order to comply with occupancy limits social distance guidelines in the lab, Loe had to keep students spread out and split the class into two groups so they could rotate through every other week.

While the smaller numbers allow the students to spread out, Loe added there is also the benefit that students are not forced to share equipment and more personalized attention.

Still, some students opted to take the course completely online.

Those students, along with those who are not in the lab that week, still participate in a lab exercise through the online learning tool Labster.

“It’s basically a video game,” said Taylor Maxwell, a junior environmental chemistry major.

While Maxwell said the Labster assignments are no substitute for the hands-on experience she receives in Loe’s labs, the scenarios provide a practical base to build off.

While the students in Loe’s class moved back to the area for classes this semester, many did so because their jobs were here. With no students in the lounges of the Advanced Technology and Science Hall or out in the quad between classes, being in-person feels a little weird for some.

“It doesn’t feel like the semester started,” Maxwell said.

Ashlyn Hildebrand, a junior chemistry major with a concentration in biochemistry, said her and her classmates have always been close and worked together in and out of the classroom. Despite some face-to-face time in the lab, for Hildebrand it now it feels as though everyone is on their own.

Loe said normally she has around five students in the lab but as the semester has carried on, some students have had to stay home temporarily due to possible exposure to the coronavirus, missing out of valuable hands on time.

Having spent three years teaching at SRU, Loe said the changes this semester has been a challenge but has been nothing compared to the chaotic changes that occurred during the shutdown last spring. Those students, who were in Biochemistry II at the time, were forced to scrap ongoing assignments and utilize mock data to complete their work on plasmids.

Knowing that the upcoming spring semester will look more or less like the current, Loe said she has enough time to come up with creative workarounds to the upcoming challenges. One of the challenges she is tackling now is for students to be able to work with living organisms while not being around to take care of it all the time.

Yet, despite the challenges, Loe and her students feel a little more confident about what the following semester will bring and their ability to adapt.

“It probably will go better,” said Rachel Hemmerlin, also a junior chemistry major with a concentration in biochemistry.

Hemmerlin said students and professors know what to expect and have been working out the kinks throughout the semester to find the right balance.

No matter what the upcoming semester brings for Loe’s class, they agreed that right now they are just glad to be able to meet in-person, even if it is only for a couple of hours once every two weeks.

Joe is a senior communication major with a concentration in converged journalism. This is his first year with The Rocket as assistant news editor. Before joining The Rocket, Joe worked at Butler County Community College’s student newspaper along with a short-lived career as public affairs sergeant (along with many other assignments) with the United States Army. When not covering campus news, Joe spends his weekends with his fiancée and son in Slippery Rock.

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