In their own words: STEM students on learning science through a screen

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In April last year, I wrote an op-ed making clear my disappointment with the idea of online teaching. At the time, learning entirely from recorded videos and Zoom calls seemed alien and impossible. Now, online learning is our reality.

For me, it has meant the cancellation of both my second and third-year fieldtrips. The final year trip to the Norweigian Arctic was one of the reasons I chose to study Geography at Durham University, and I made sure to study modules relevant to that trip. Although I am disappointed that I can’t go, I understand that the situation is beyond anybody’s control.

Yet as I near the end of my time at Durham, I wonder if I would have had a greater appreciation for my degree subject had I gone on those fieldtrips. I do not see myself choosing a career or postgraduate course directly related to my degree. But I don’t think that’s because I have no interest at all in my subject. I just don’t feel I’ve had the opportunity to really engage with it – to find out if I love it.

The aim of this investigation is to gain an understanding of whether students feel online teaching at Durham University is a comparable substitute for in-person teaching. Alongside conducting a survey, I asked STEM students to describe what it is like to learn practical-based subjects online.

We all know that campus life cannot continue ‘as normal’ this year and the responses I received were objective, not whiny. Nonetheless, it is important to recognise that different subjects fare differently in an online format, and there is much work to be done to convince students to stick with practical-based subjects.


JACK, 3rd YEAR, PHYSICS

I’ve seen a very mixed response from teaching in the physics department, depending highly on the individual lecturers for each course.

Problem classes run by PhD students on Zoom are often stilted and awkward, and many students sit in silence. There’s no easy way to replicate hand drawn diagrams explaining mathematical concepts. How can you show where your problem is without holding pieces of paper up to the camera?

There were 58 lab spaces for a year group of 250

Physics is a practical subject. Much of learning depends on lab work. The department made an effort to offer labs to third-year students by creating online, “at home” experiments for second years. However, they were only able to offer 58 lab spaces to a year group of around 250. A lot of Physics students, myself included, felt really discouraged from applying for the labs modules we had wanted to do. We were worried that it wouldn’t be safe, wouldn’t be able to run all year, or we wouldn’t be able to secure a place.

AMBER, 3rd YEAR, ENGINEERING

The transition to completely online learning has meant a massive shift in the way teaching is delivered. Engineering has always been a contact hour heavy degree, with up to 25 hours per week of lectures, labs and seminars.

For the most part, online lectures and seminars have been delivered seamlessly, with many occurring ‘live’. My lecturers are making a huge effort to continue to engage students with different formats of delivering lectures, extremely detailed lecture notes and some lovely backgrounds (one lecturer has even brought a professional green screen).

My lecturers are making a huge effort to continue to engage students

However, it has been harder to learn practical skills remotely. Crucial to an Engineering degree is practical experience. Now, lab access is limited to those with explicit permission all other lab work has been moved “online”. This means that we will have less familiarity with crucial equipment and have less opportunity to practice data collection skills.

Where online learning falls short most, however, is not unique to Engineering. We are all missing out on the student ‘experience’. It is easy to fall behind and lose focus without the regular encouragement of seeing your course mates.

I appreciate how lucky I am in having established friendships, and know how much harder this would have been if I was a fresher.

The Engineering department has put a lot of effort and resources into accommodating students for remote learning. However, the negative effect on the student learning experience cannot be ignored.

I know how much harder this would have been if I was a fresher

HELEN, 2nd YEAR, NATURAL SCIENCES

I had some in-person lab sessions last term (Michaelmas Term), although the hours were significantly reduced from normal years. Chemistry labs are often run over two days; now we only have one afternoon and we are given supplementary datasets to make up for the rest.

Social distancing was possible and the sessions were well organised. However, social distancing was not always enforced, and some of the spaces in labs are really not large enough to stay 1m apart at all times.

Without lab partners, no one was talking – so it was very quiet and uncomfortable. We’re missing out on the social aspect of learning, as lab partners often become good friends.

We’re missing out on the social aspect of learning

For those who want to pursue a career in research, online learning has had a significant negative impact. Students aren’t able to gain as much practical experience as we would normally, and it is harder to figure out if research is something we are really interested in.

However, I actually think pre-recorded lectures work better than traditional lectures, because we can pause them to take notes and breaks. However, tutorials are much more difficult on Zoom; quieter students are discouraged from participating.

Ultimately though, the practical skills which are key to science can only really be gained in a hands-on way. There is talk of catching up on labs in summer term if possible, and I think this would help significantly.

Quieter students are discouraged from participating

PAUL, 4TH YEAR, CHEMISTRY

Before the academic year began, the department took the decision to schedule all lab work for second term. All lectures, reading time, planning, and other teaching activities were brought forwards to first term. At the time, that seemed a reasonable decision.

Since then, however, the pandemic situation has gotten worse and not better and the department recognised that some students would be unable or unwilling to return to Durham for lab projects after Christmas. They allowed students to opt for a remote project, akin to a dissertation, instead.

The students still completing lab projects that I have spoken to seem glad to have had this opportunity and are benefitting from conducting primary research. However, their time in the labs has been restricted.

I am sure I am missing out on skills that I can’t even name

For those like me who are undertaking remote projects, we are glad to have been given this option. Students and staff know that we are missing crucial research skills such as experiment planning and learning to use equipment.

I am sure I am missing out on other skills that I can’t even name because I don’t know what they are. These can never be replaced, but we do not expect that the Department can change this under the current circumstances.

ELISE, 2nd YEAR, BIOLOGY

‘Online labs’ involve using secondary data, for example using computer programmes such as Fiji ImageJ to analyse images. We haven’t had a lot of instruction for this work; many of the programmes are new to us this year, and we’ve been expected to complete tasks without demonstrations. I feel it would be better if we worked through it together on Zoom.

JENNIFER, 3RD YEAR, GEOLOGY

Fieldwork is an essential part of geology. It is an opportunity to put the theory learnt in lectures to the test.

Can the field environment really be recreated on Zoom? In short, I would say no. That said, I feel that the pandemic has made clear the importance of learning digital skills as well, which will benefit me in a digitally advancing world.

Instead of travelling by coach, we arrived via Google Earth satellite imagery

In 2020/21, I was expecting to travel to Southern Spain and Tenerife, to discover in person the effects of extensive faulting and volcanology. These trips were moved online. The virtual ‘fieldtrip’ to Spain consisted of a week’s worth of 9am-5pm Zoom calls.

Instead of travelling by coach, we arrived at our localities via Google Earth satellite imagery. Our lecturers taught us the same content as they would have done in the field, but using drone footage, 3D software and virtual microscopes to analyse the outcrops.

At the end of the week, we produced a digital geological map, cross section, stratigraphic column and report by compiling all the new digital skills we had acquired. Although it was engaging and I felt I had learnt a lot, it is not the same as exploring the Betic Mountains and studying the rocks in person.

The pandemic has made the importance of learning digital skills

Geology as a degree has hardly changed since it was first introduced. Geoinformatics (a module teaching core software skills), only became compulsory in 2018. Now, this module has become more valuable than ever, with research and learning becoming computer based.

But although digital skills were gaining importance, the pandemic has forced the department to quickly bring them to the fore, rethinking the structure of the entire course. Before Covid-19, I would have been spending six weeks of my summer mapping the Dorset coastline. But I am now mapping the palaeochannels of the Yellow River, China, using satellite imagery and ArcGIS.

In the 21st Century, there are fewer jobs as a fieldwork geologist – spending months in the field – which the physical mapping dissertations gave us the skillset for. These roles are much rarer due to the development of remote sensing. With my training in digital software, I do not think I will be negatively affected in the job market.

However, in the long term I do not think science subjects can purely be taught virtually. Learning how to use a microscope is a key skill which can be supplemented but not replaced with a virtual one. I hope that we will eventually have the opportunity to return to the invaluable hands-on experience in the field and in the labs, so that first and second years have the opportunity to put the skills learnt over Zoom into practice.

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