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Reflecting on the last year of collegiate teaching challenges

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When the University of Florida told students to return home on March 16, 2020, faculty across campus (as well as across the nation) were thrown into virtual teaching.

Every educator put in their best effort to be successful that spring not knowing that virtual teaching would persist another four semesters. This change required a complete overhaul of the way classes were delivered. Amie Imler, a Florida lecturer, transitioned four courses to an online format. The most challenging of these was taking on the delivery of what should have been a hands-on, interactive experience for the class ANS3006L- Intro to Animal Science Lab, which she teaches with Kyle Mendes.

“Taking hands-on labs and still trying to make them engaging online, we had to find ways to allow students to do things at home that were affordable, and accessible to them,” Imler said. “For our dairy products lab, we had students make butter or ice cream at home if they had that ability, we also had students candle and grade eggs at home.”

Traditionally, the lab class transports students to Animal Science teaching units so they can see different types of animal operations such as a dairy, horse training facility, beef cattle chute, meat processing center, and swine barns. As many students remained at home through the fall of 2020 and spring of 2021, these lab trips were replaced with 360-degree virtual walking tours. The tours allowed virtual students to “explore” the different teaching units and interact with recorded lecture videos and pop-ups included in the tour.

“You had to think of different ways to do everything, and you had to provide a lot of grace to students who needed it,” Imler said. “I think that was as challenging, if not more challenging, than trying to move curriculum into a virtual format because you’re trying to balance holding the students accountable so they’re well-trained for a professional setting, but at the same time trying to recognize that we’re all just trying to figure things out.”

In the fall of 2020 UF began to allow some modified in-person classes again, and ANS was able to have several classes approved, due to the importance of the hands-on experience to the course curriculum.

“Kyle and I were advocates for them, especially in terms of offering in-person experiences when many departments and faculty couldn’t,” Imler said. “Those that do show up in-person really are grateful and are looking for that social experience.”

With the help of student teaching assistants, Imler was able to incorporate her labs into the in the HyFlex model where virtual students attended class alongside a small in-person group. All students participated in the virtual tours and watched recorded videos as pre-lab work. Then they met for the lab session where the discussion was live streamed to the virtual students. The virtual students were able to interact through the Zoom chat feature. Imler found that this pre-lab preparation resulted in students coming to lab with more background knowledge and asking more meaningful questions than those in her pre-COVID labs.

Imler said one of the few positive outcomes from this experience hasve been the necessary innovation in her teaching strategy. It pushed her to try ideas she felt she did not have time to implement before COVID. The pandemic drove her to come up with entirely new ways of delivering her class.

“Virtual labs are not the same experience, but it is certainly much better than what it could have been, and it’s now created material that is going to continue to benefit our future students as well as other learners, and even make the lab experience when we are back to fully in-person so much better,” Imler said.

The videos and tours developed for Imler’s courses have been shared with extension agents and agricultural teachers. They have also helped supplement classes for students who are taking ANS courses at UF Research and Education Centers. Additionally, the tours of the units have been repurposed for the general public to learn more about the animal industry and how the ANS department uses these facilities to fulfill the land-grant mission.

 

This article was written by Zoe Bowden and originally published on the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Department of Animal Sciences blog. It is republished here with permission. Visit this link to see more blogs from UF/IFAS.

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