“The chemistry of life”: Augustana chemistry professor on remote learning in Fall 2020

Professor Brian Rempel and lab coordinator Magrieta Snyman adapted their organic chemistry course to be delivered remotely this Fall. Hear about their plans and advice to incoming students.

Tia Lalani - 18 August 2020

Augustana chemistry professor Brian Rempel has always loved teaching organic chemistry, or what he refers to as “the chemistry of life,” and this Fall’s course will be no different. Well…it’ll be a little bit different.

Hear from professor Rempel and Augustana lab coordinator Magrieta Snyman as they tell their students a bit about how organic chemistry at Augustana will look this Fall, including a potential in-person lab component, asynchronous content so that students have the flexibility to view it when they can and how students can continue to make connections in their online courses.

What are your lessons learned from the pivot in the Winter term, and how will the Fall be different for you given the longer lead time for planning?

The Winter term was a different, and unique, beast. The sudden shift to online presented a whole host of new questions that had to be answered RIGHT NOW (for example, how will I deliver content? How will I evaluate the students' learning?).

I learned that I could not deliver content in a synchronous fashion. Internet connectivity issues, personal issues, or any number of other things like caring for a loved one could conspire to make it impossible for a student to reliably attend the scheduled class time. So the direction from our administration to deliver content asynchronously was very good advice, and I am glad I took that advice right from the get-go. I think I learned that making a plan and sticking to it was very important in terms of deciding the big picture items, but being flexible on a day-to-day basis was essential. I solicited feedback from students at the start of each virtual class to try to figure out what was working and what was not working. The big picture things didn't change, but exactly how we managed the day-to-day was something that did change based on feedback.

For me, Fall won’t be too different. I liked the model that the students helped me develop for the Winter semester; I am going to largely port that class structure. The biggest changes will be in how the labs are delivered, not the lectures. The winter labs ended up getting partly cancelled; for the Fall term our lab coordinator (Magrieta Snyman) has been working extremely hard to film everything and create a number of “virtual labs”. While they cannot replicate the hands-on learning that occurs in the lab completely, students will at least have a chance to see (if not feel and touch) how some of the technical things in chemistry get done.

What are you most looking forward to for the Fall?

I'm looking forward to seeing how well my form of a "flipped class" will work with all of the content delivery through textbook and voice-over-powerpoint videos done in advance, and in-class time focusing exclusively on Q&A and problem-solving. My experience in the winter has convinced me that I may adopt a similar model even when we do return to face-to-face classes. I found the student engagement with the Q&A and problem solving during the synchronous portions of my winter class to be positively outstanding.

Any other messages of encouragement for new and returning students?

The online learning last semester worked far, far better than I expected. I think that as long as a person sets themselves a good schedule, that remote delivery will also be pretty cool. Talk to your classmates lots; friendships can still be made through Zoom, just like in a real class, and those social connections will be a huge help in success. And don't be afraid to send your instructor an email seeking help/guidance/offering thoughts on what is working and what isn't. My students last semester were great about providing me honest feedback on the class, and that made the whole experience far better as a result. I hope students for the coming year will continue to be as engaged and willing to give honest feedback as my last group of students.