Flexibility key as Iowa State begins fall semester during ongoing pandemic

Chemistry lab

Graduate teaching assistant Jenny Li, right, displays a test tube holder while instructing her Chemistry 177 lab students on Wednesday. The lab is operating at half capacity with face coverings, plexiglass barriers and plastic sheeting providing protection from transmission of COVID-19. Photos by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa — When Iowa State University’s courses moved online this spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Steve Butler showed up on his YouTube channel without his usual beard but with a positive attitude.

As the fall semester gets underway – with a mix of face-to-face, hybrid and online courses – you can still find Butler on his YouTube channel, now with a new beard and the same positivity. Butler is the Barbara J. Janson Professor of mathematics.

His positivity is contagious: One of Butler’s recent videos went viral on social media because he couldn’t stop laughing. Someone made a face mask using a picture of Butler’s nose and mouth. He ordered one and made his version of the popular “unboxing video” on YouTube (see video in sidebar).

“My mind was not ready to register what I saw,” he said. “Also, we’ve all been under a fair amount of stress these last couple of months and I think my body was ready to release. Often the way it releases is through laughter. I had to cut about two minutes of me laughing from the video.”

Despite Butler’s whimsical demeanor – “my ability to go on tangents is what makes me a good calculus professor,” he says – he takes teaching seriously. Butler is re-recording his calculus materials, which will amount to about 300 videos.

“In the past I would record lectures, with the idea that it was for students who went to my lecture and wanted to review what I said,” he said. “Now that’s no longer the case. This is their first time hearing it, so I’m recording new videos so it’s not just disembodied hands. And I’m recording about twice as many examples as I normally would do in class.”

Each topic now has an associated PDF with the summary and a selection of problems. By clicking on a problem, students will be taken to that exact point in a video of Butler addressing that problem.

“We’re a lot better prepared than we were in the spring,” he said. “I don’t think things are going to go perfectly right away, but I think they’ll go better. People are still going to get a quality education.”

Experimenting with smaller labs 

Chemistry labs scrambled to go online this spring. Sara Pistolesi, associate teaching professor of chemistry, and graduate students pulled from previous semesters’ lab reports, conducted experiments themselves and took pictures so the now-online students could see what was supposed to happen.

“It was very far from ideal, but that was the best we could do with such short notice,” Pistolesi said.

She didn’t want that to happen again this fall. So, Pistolesi created floor plans for each lab this summer and worked out a schedule so that half of each class would alternate their time in the lab.

Teaching assistants are leading labs in person and providing online recitation. Graduate students such as Jenny Li, a Ph.D. candidate in materials science and engineering, have been instrumental in working to ensure the fall semester runs as smoothly as possible.

“We can be very good role models for undergraduate students,” Li said. “We’ve been here the past five months, so we know how things are going in Ames and at Iowa State.”

Li continued her research on campus over the summer despite many faculty and staff working from home. She was often the only person in her building, so seeing students in the hallways and classrooms on Monday was almost like culture shock.

“I’ve been doing this for six semesters, and this one is very different,” Li said. “Before, I had 20 people in my section. Now, only 10 people are allowed in a lab. The pros are of course physical distancing, and each student gets more hands-on experience since they don’t have partners. I can also provide more one-on-one help. The cons are just that it takes more time since each student is working on their own.”

This summer, a team recorded videos of every experiment. Like other faculty, staff and students across campus, Pistolesi is putting in the work now just in case the semester has to suddenly change course.

“They would miss the practical side, but at least they wouldn’t miss the rest,” she said. “Besides the layout in the labs being different, the concepts and the learning remain the same.”

A different kind of design 

Design class

Teaching assistant Oluwatobiloba Fagbule, left, and
assistant professor of art and visual culture Olivia
Valentine discuss photography samples with their
Design Studies 102 students on Wednesday in the
College of Design building. Larger image.

First-year students in the College of Design take core courses before applying to their preferred program. This fall, there are 260 students enrolled in 14 sections of the Design Studies 102 studios, most of which are hybrid (partially in-person, partially online).

Some classes split students into two groups: One meets the first half of their meeting time, the rest meets the second half. In others, half meet on WebEx while the rest are in person, which flips the next day. Others meet with half of the class in person one day, and the other half in person the next day.

This summer, Patience Lueth, associate teaching professor of architecture and coordinator of the Design Studies 102 studios, led a committee to plan all of these options for the fall semester.

“This is more real than it could ever be, because in the ‘real world,’ designers are not always together,” she said. “You’re collaborating across the world. So what are you doing? You’re sharing work on various platforms.”

Flexibility is key, Lueth says, for everyone on campus. Contingency plans are in place should a rise in COVID-19 cases cause courses to go online again, or if a storm such as the derecho that hit Iowa the week before ISU classes started knocks out students’ electricity – or any other unforeseen problem.

Like Butler, Lueth looks for the positive in everything, and she’s excited to see how this shift to a largely digital environment affects the learning process.

“It has to be this way for us to move forward, so we should be thinking about everything going digital at this point,” she said. “There are so many wonderful possibilities for how design can happen.”