UI science students adapt to online classes, loss of in-person labs

Hawkeyes in science and math majors discuss their struggles with online classes, including missing in-person instruction, self-motivation, and changes in curriculum.


Photo illustration by Jenna Galligan

Rin Swann, News Reporter

Annie Wofford, a University of Iowa third-year student studying human physiology on the pre-med track, was concerned that she may miss out on the hands-on learning her lab classes on campus offered as the UI moved to virtual instruction.

Wofford, who described herself as a more “atmospheric learner,” said her lab classes were the extra step that locked in concepts she learned from lectures.

“My biggest struggle right now with the science classes is doing the work and putting in the same amount of effort when you don’t physically see the professor or can’t physically go to the office hours for a quick question,” Wofford said.

Students like Wofford and their instructors are grappling with how to transfer labs, which often require experiential learning and student participation, to an online format because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Curriculum changes vary by instructor as they adapt to teaching remotely and shift their syllabi in the middle of the semester.

Kaia Johanningmeier, a second-year student majoring in geoscience and secondary-science education, said her physics lab was canceled entirely and her semester grade will be an average of her past lab scores. Meanwhile, Johanningmeier’s geology lab has been largely unaffected, though she looks at pictures of rocks now instead of real rock samples.

“It’s just we can’t really collaborate with our peers anymore, which is disappointing,” Johanningmeier said.

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Johanningmeier added that she believes her professors are trying their best under the circumstances.

UI chemistry Professor Renee Cole is one of four UI instructors teaching Principles of Chemistry One to a class of 800 students. Cole said the extra week of spring break was advantageous, but accommodating for a class of that size still proved to be a challenge.

“It’s been a lot of starts and stops and pivots,” Cole said on going through ideas and pushing for a curriculum that worked.

One creative solution Cole’s co-worker, UI lecturer Adam Brummett, found to accommodate lab classes is setting up a green screen in his home as he records a demonstration of the experiments. By editing the video, Brummett said the lab becomes as engaging as possible and taking the extra time to do so is what the students deserve.

“It’s two weeks now of basically no sleep and eating whatever you can,” said Max Geng, another professor of Principles of Chemistry One.

Kelsey Maher, a UI sophomore majoring in health and human physiology, said she appreciates how accommodating professors have been during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I definitely feel like the teachers are super understanding regarding this strange situation that we find ourselves in,” Maher said.

RELATED: UI will not refund students’ tuition during virtual instruction, will refund some housing and course fees

Maher added that her motivation has not suffered, because she gets overwhelmed if she falls behind. Other students, including Wofford and Johanningmeier, pointed to self-motivation as one of the biggest struggles they have faced while adjusting to online classes.

Johanningmeier joked that now classes feel “optional,” but talking with friends who attend the UI and feel the same has helped motivate her to complete them anyway.

“The curriculum is still there, it’s just in a different way and we’re all learning to adapt to it,” Johanningmeier said. “And as hard as it may be to see now, I think we’re all learning and growing from this experience.”