What does it take to be a successful teacher during a pandemic? For Professor Audrey Zink-Sharp of the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, it all comes down to three things: persistence, grit, and creativity.

Like many of her colleagues in the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE), Zink-Sharp felt that she had her teaching plans well in hand at the start of the fall semester. She had taken advantage of some of the teaching resources offered by the university and participated in a workshop related to lab preparation.

In a college known for its experiential learning, her plan was to deliver online lectures for her Structures and Properties of Sustainable Biomaterials course yet still offer students hands-on experiences in person during labs. Things seemed to be going well at the start of the semester: her lab plans were approved, online lectures were well attended, and students were working in the labs with the available technology.

Then, Zink-Sharp said, she found herself in the kind of situation that has characterized academic life for faculty as well as learners since the onset of COVID-19: “Things changed and I needed to deliver my lab classes online as well as in person. I scrambled to find a creative way to teach plant anatomy remotely.”

The solution she settled upon was the Carson MicroFlip handheld microscope. She created lab kits featuring the small, battery-operated microscopes as well as a set of four wood blocks for study with a hand lens, four microscope slides that go with the wood blocks, and the anatomy quiz for that lab session.

Although Zink-Sharp offered to mail the kits, students not attending the lab in person all chose to pick them up. When it was time for the lab to begin, about six students used their kits on the second floor of Cheatham Hall while others learned at their kitchen table, desk, or whatever space became their lab that day.

In teaching these now-hybrid sections, Zink-Sharp still stands at the front of the classroom and shows students how to use their MicroFlip microscopes. However, she’s now accompanied by her own camera on a tripod, ever mindful that in addition to the students in the room, she’s also instructing and coaching students who are joining the session virtually.

A young woman and man sit apart at lab tables while wearing face masks and looking down at smartphones attached to small microscopes.
Students use the handheld microscopes in the lab as well as for remote learning. Photo by Krista Timney, Virginia Tech.

One of the advantages of the new microscopes is that by attaching a smartphone, students can take photos, so they’ll have images of the wood anatomy structures at their fingertips for reference.

“As a result, my students are making a stronger connection to the class materials now that they participate in preparing the study materials,” Zink-Sharp observed. “They also seem to have fun using this ‘modern’ approach more than the higher-quality, traditional microscopes used in the lab.”

Students are also learning to see trees and their underlying structures in new ways. “Thank you for opening my eyes to how beautiful wood can be,” said Anna Troutt, a packaging systems and design major.

Zink-Sharp’s approach of preparing lab and field kits has been adopted by other departmental faculty, along with trying new forms of online instruction to help students manage complicated topics. “I have learned from both faculty and students that teaching and learning right now is such a varied experience — everyone is going through something different, difficult, and unusual, all at the same time.”

Overall, she sees people adapting, although everyone is doing it in their own way. Online offerings and hybrid classes, like the one she is learning to teach, may be “new, uncharted territory for most of us,” yet they are now becoming the norm for teaching and connecting with students.

“Regardless of delivery method, in CNRE we are capturing new opportunities to achieve our learning outcomes and are excited about creating meaningful experiences for our students even during this unusual time,” Zink-Sharp concluded.

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