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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life December 3, 2020

Distant Learning

Faculty-student connections remain strong, even if classrooms look different

Amy Putnam
Photographs by Jeff Baker

Across the disciplines, faculty embraced remote teaching this semester. Some turned bedrooms into classrooms. Others found creative ways to transmit tangible projects over digital airwaves by placing multiple cameras strategically so that students, dialing in via Zoom, could see things like a saw blade or a dinosaur footprint or the drape of a piece of fabric

One chemistry instructor plunked his laptop on his chair and wheeled it through his lab to introduce the equipment and materials. Early on, geosciences professors raided unused storehouses and sent students mineral samples, while theatre department instructors boxed up kits of power tools from the Stage Construction Shop and shipped them to students’ homes. Faculty with less hands-on subjects took advantage of the digital environment to invite experts from around the country to join their classes and respond to students’ ideas and questions.

What surprised faculty was how strong connections with their students remained. There were still moments of laughter and joy and the powerful exchange of ideas that is a hallmark of the Smith experience. And for many faculty members, the daily experience of seeing their students via computer screen strengthened their own resiliency and dissipated their sense of isolation.

Below, faculty from across the disciplines reflect on the experience of teaching and learning during this unique semester.

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Building Connections

Class: Theatre 200: Stage Construction
Instructors: Amy Putnam and Alan Schneider, technical directors

“Alan and I have both recognized that teaching remotely has shifted the class into an entirely different direction. I’m not sure I would say it was better or worse, but in some ways it feels more focused. The entire class is now designed around the students learning in a tiered and specific way, as opposed to the learning being centered on what they could learn by building the scenery for a specific production. I would not say that virtual teaching is easier or harder than in-person teaching, but it has been much easier than I expected it to be, and I rather enjoy it. I am finding myself surprised by the connection that we are still able to build with the students even when we cannot see them in person.”

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Chemistry as a Mood Booster

Class: Chemistry 114L
Instructor: Joe Yeager, senior laboratory instructor

“[Teaching remotely] is going better than I expected. I’ve been incredibly impressed with the students’ ability to be engaged even when doing their learning at such a distance. Chemistry lab is all about the hands-on experience of doing experiments yourself, so I think it’s one of the hardest classes to translate to the online environment. But students are learning a lot and putting in their best work, and I’ve really appreciated the connections we’ve made among ourselves. We instructors get lonely, too, but my little lab communities are a big mood booster.”

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The Fabric of Learning

Class: Theatre 200: Costume Construction Techniques
Instructor: Emily Justice Dunn, costume shop supervisor

“This semester, I was able to allow more students into my class. Normally, because our costume shop is small, I can only allow four students. But I was able to allow all my waitlisted students (six total). Due to virtual learning, I had to make sure I had enough time with each student so I could answer and work through all of their questions. In a normal semester, we are all in the same room together and questions are asked/answered as the work is being accomplished. Teaching this way has been successful, and although it is not exactly the same, students are learning some different and valuable skills.”

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Dinosaurs Go Digital

Class: Geology 102: Exploring Your Local Landscape
Instructors: Greg de Wet and Sarah Mazza, assistant professors of geosciences

“We had five students join us for a virtual field trip to explore dinosaur footprints at a local outcrop. We had sent them samples of rock formations ahead of time to inspect, and then they dialed in through Zoom. I think the best moment of the semester was when we had a discussion about the paleoenvironmental significance of the outcrop. This discussion showed me that they were able to apply various principles of geology that we had been discussing throughout the semester to what they were seeing on video.” —Sarah Mazza

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Zooming Into the Stars

Class: Astronomy 337
Instructor: James Lowenthal, Mary Elizabeth Moses Professor of Astronomy

“Normally, students would be in the telescope dome with me for observations, but this year it’s just me in the dome, with students Zooming in. In the dome, I typically use two computers—each running a Zoom camera—and often supplement that with a third Zoom session on my iPhone. That way, I can walk around the McConnell Rooftop Observatory deck and show the students the sunset and they can assess the weather. I’m trying to give them as strong a sense as possible of what it’s like to be in the dome, with them thousands of miles away. And I turn over control of the observatory to them: Over Zoom, they’re changing the settings on the telescope, the camera, the dome, they’re starting the exposures, they’re assessing the data quality visually in real time.”

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Welcoming New Faces

Class: Latin American Studies 201: Caribbean Feminisms
Instructor: Ginetta Candelario ’90, professor of sociology and of Latin American and Latino/a studies (with guest scholar April Mayes)

“An unexpected benefit to the shift to remote teaching was realizing that I could invite guest lecturers from all over the country (and the world) to speak with my class without the expense and logistical challenges that would normally entail. Meeting all these amazing women has really benefited the students and advanced their learning, and it’s been wonderful for me to catch up with my colleague friends outside of the conferences where we would normally see each other.”


This story appears in the Winter 2020-21 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.