Don’t Pan(dem)ic! A personal reflection on STEM teaching in higher education during COVID-19

Dr Charlotte Sutherell
Dr Charlotte Sutherell

Dr Charlotte Sutherell is a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Chemistry, and recently won a President’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching. In this blog post she shares her perspectives on higher education teaching over the past year and a half: from the very sudden and unexpected shift to remote learning at the start of the COVID-19 crisis, to broader reflections on how remote teaching has impacted the HE landscape in both positive and negative ways, and why she loves her role in STEM education.

By Dr Charlotte Sutherell

Reaching the end of an academic year always triggers a real mixture of emotions for me, as one pauses and reflects. There’s relief as the pace eases a (small!) notch; satisfaction in what our student and staff community has accomplished; sadness at farewells to graduates despite excitement for their futures; anticipation for the year ahead. Those emotions are even more intense after the extraordinary months of activity we’ve all experienced thanks to the pandemic and the Curriculum Review. I am sure I’m not alone in finding myself reflecting on how my ideas about what we teach, how to do it and what matters most for learning have been shaken up!

I’m currently a Senior Teaching Fellow in Chemistry, specialising in organic and medicinal chemistry, having conducted PhD and postdoctoral research in drug discovery and synthesis. Although it was always tutorial teaching during my PhD at Cambridge that put the biggest smile on my face, a career of HE teaching, separate from academic research, didn’t seem possible. Fortunately a postdoc at Imperial changed that, thanks to a PI who supported my interests, opportunities to teach, and also finding that the College as a whole was supporting dedicated education career paths. I became a Teaching Fellow in 2018 and, apart of course from getting to know our ‘CHEMunity’ of students as individuals and seeing them develop, the constant learning has been the aspect of my role I’ve enjoyed most.

Don’t Pan(dem)ic!

It’s fair to say, however, that I never expected to have to learn as much, or as quickly, about blended teaching… The initial crisis of moving online is a distant memory now, and my main impression is actually a positive one of the flexibility and empathy demonstrated. A core team was involved in creating a framework for assessments and the summer term, and the willingness of everyone – both students and staff – to give things a go, support each other and learn from the hiccups was crucial to getting through. The early recognition that more pastoral support and casual online activities were needed to try and maintain our sense of community helped cohesion.

Learning from the summer, as a Department we made a couple of key decisions that have proved crucial in letting us successfully negotiate this year. The timetable was redesigned (many, many times) to support sudden switches between delivery modes. Every lab had a remote alternative created, with huge efforts from staff to design safe-for-home or online experiments that would achieve the learning outcomes, including the physical assembly of our ‘Lab in a Box’ kits.  We chose to employ a standard model and set of technological tools for multi-mode learning, breaking lectures into shorter pre-recorded videos and incorporating engagement points in Blackboard as a minimum for active learning. This framework gave students consistency and enabled staff to focus on content creation and incorporating active learning, rather than needing to work out every aspect of design or technology. The huge efforts of lecturers and staff were ably supported by an outstanding team of GTAs who partnered staff in areas like lab design, student training and transition, or supported the upload of the online material, and the assistance of the FoNS Ed Tech team.

Personally I’ve found aspects of remote teaching a significant challenge, particularly small group settings like tutorials where dialogue and peer-to-peer interaction are so essential. Whilst tools like have let one create personal connections and see individual work, I cannot wait to finally get students together and collaborating on physical whiteboards again! There have been advantages too. I’ve found active learning exercises from my lectures worked better using Padlet than in person, as students had time to think and reflect on material, could receive individual feedback and learn from their peers’ posts. I’ve also been able to bring my interest in giving students authentic learning experiences into our medicinal chemistry courses, thanks to online open-science initiatives around SARS-CoV-2 drug-discovery! Using crystal structures and screening data from Diamond and the COVID Moonshot project, our second and third years have been working to analyse crystal structures and design molecules as part of a global community of scientists.

Moving forwards?

A crucial influence on my teaching practice this year, and in general, has been the MEd in University Learning and Teaching, organised by Imperial’s Educational Development Unit (EDU). This is not just due to the fantastic teaching of the EDU team but the experience of being a student again and not ‘the expert’. I too have been watching pre-recorded lectures (I’d never understood the appeal amongst my students of playing recordings at 1.25x speed before) and found myself needing to overcome strong inhibitions to contribute during live online sessions. The unsettling experiences of grappling with new writing styles or the emotional impact of feedback and grades have helped me consider how students interact with my teaching and how we can best help them manage and productively use the discomfort of learning. The joys and frustrations of learning online have fed back into my own practice, highlighting the absence of the less tangible learning from being in a space with others and the casual chats where one realises you are not alone in your struggles or ideas.

I claim no special knowledge or insight, and our experiences in Chemistry are not uncommon, but I’m certain that many of the innovations and necessities of this year will be influencing us going forward and there is more change ahead. It’s put a sharp spotlight on how to best use the time we have face-to-face with students; how to achieve active learning with large groups, where lectures might be flipped, is a source of vigorous discussion. It is essential that we keep listening to students about their experiences. Whilst their ability to cope with this year has been admirable, it has been hugely demanding. Some have talked about enjoying engaging with lecture material at a more individual pace but it has been a challenging medium for others; people have had to relearn how to take notes; some have shared the difficulty of speaking up in the virtual space while others have found it liberating. We have all missed the social interactions that are vital in learning. There is not a single perfect solution to how we resolve these tensions, but I’m sure that we need to continue to be this creative and adaptable. I’m looking forward to continuing to learn from the work and innovation in teaching going on throughout the College.  For a moment though, I can pause and reflect and feel very proud of all that our students and my colleagues have done to reach the end of this year.

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