With thousands of students and scores of courses across disciplines, the College of Science and Technology faced many challenges when Temple University, in response to the Covid-19 epidemic, moved to online learning in March: ensuring continuity of education, keeping students connected to faculty, and maintaining its well-earned reputation for offering students meaningful, real-world experience or 'lab hands.'

"We had to pivot online quickly, and the work of CST faculty and staff in early 2020 was extraordinary," says Bernd Surrow, professor of physics and director of the college's Center for Online and Digital Learning (CODL). "But we also began developing a vision to build a broad online learning portfolio with dedicated support for faculty, students and the community."

That vision includes individual online courses and entirely online undergraduate and graduate degree programs, certificate programs for working professionals and resources for K-12 STEM education. To reach these goals, Surrow is drawing on the digital learning expertise within the college. Dominique Kliger, who manages the college's online master's in information science and technology launched in 2019, is CODL's assistant director. College staff with computer science, graphic arts and videography expertise are also part of the center.

The team has set up a new recording studio, located in the Science Education and Research Center, to create and edit course materials. Working with faculty, the team built online course content for General Chemistry and similar introductory courses for the departments of Biology, Mathematics and Earth & Environmental Science.

"The studio is a key component because a faculty member does not have to worry about light, sound and editing," explains Surrow. "A faculty member can concentrate solely on the main thing, delivering a compelling lecture."

According to Surrow, approximately 15 percent of CST faculty have experience with teaching fully online courses. Darius Balciunas, a biology professor, hadn't done much online teaching, but he was pleased with the "Genome Editing" course he taught online this year. "It was a small class, so there was a lot of personal interaction, which is a big—but not impossible—challenge with online learning," says Balciunas, who has used CODL and Temple resources to enhance his online teaching. "Online does have certain advantages, too. Some students may be shy about raising a question or making a comment in the classroom, but may find it easier to do through a Zoom chat, for example."

Owen Glaser, a biochemistry major, thought "Genome Editing" was one of the more successful online courses he took this year. "The method of learning is more Socratic than a traditional lecture, and Dr. Balciunas does a great job of keeping students engaged in the course by having us present information," says Glaser. "I learn better in person, but online does have certain advantages, such as re-watching lectures to review material. In "Techniques of Chemical Measurement," Associate Professor Vladimira Wilent has done a phenomenal job of using technology resources such as OneDrive and Canvas."

Tonia Hsieh, associate professor of biology, challenged the students in the online "Honors Introduction to Organismal Biology" to create TikTok videos on topics such as slime molds and ecological morphology, as a way to both enhance their own learning and share that knowledge with classmates.

"The TikTok assignments were a fun way to research topics of our choice and learn about other subjects by watching peer videos," says Ola Szmacinski, a neuroscience: cellular & molecular major. "But combining asynchronous lectures and synchronous recitations and labs helped to fortify my understanding of the material. The asynchronous lectures allow me to learn the information at my own pace, while the synchronous recitations give me an opportunity to ask questions about the material."

While she feels most of her courses went "quite well," biology student Aleena Abbasi does miss face-to-face contact with professors and peers. "The most fundamental aspect missing from online courses was the in-person interaction."

In every department, CST faculty find ways to build more personal connections among students and between faculty and students in online learning. "For some of our larger courses, the Physics Department reduced the number of hours in large lectures and doubled the time in small groups," explains Mia Luehrmann, associate professor of instruction. "We had been talking about it for some time but could never find enough physical classroom space on campus. But we could do it virtually. "

Overall, Abbasi has adjusted to online learning. "I do not prefer it over in-person learning, but I believe CST professors have done a good job of adapting to the online transition," she says. "They have provided me with a positive academic experience, which I am so grateful for."

-Greg Fornia

Video clip from Associate Professor Graham Dobereiner's General Chemistry course.