There’s an energy that Emma Weaver feels during her Thursday outdoor Mammalogy lab that isn’t the same with her other classes this semester. 

So far, Weaver and her labmates have observed mammals in Center Woods — a forested area near campus, searched for flying squirrels, and practiced with acoustic detectors to hear bats feeding at night at the Duck Pond. Mammalogy is Weaver’s only course this semester that includes some in-person instruction.

Interacting with Kevin Hamed, collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, from a safe distance, makes all of the difference, said Weaver, a senior who is majoring in wildlife conservation.

“When he’s leading class, he has everyone very engaged, and he’s very passionate about the work that he does, which rubs off on all of us,” she said. “I think that a professor’s attitude can make or break how you feel about the class.”

Hamed is making the best of a fall semester that is challenged by COVID-19. He is holding outdoor labs for his courses and recording his lectures, while also offering them in real-time via Zoom. Students who are taking courses online from outside Blacksburg can access all of his lectures and labs virtually.

With courses like Wildlife Field Biology and Mammalogy, Hamed’s labs translate well to the outdoors. It also helps that Virginia Tech’s campus has its own wildlife and is located within walking distance of places to find other mammals, he said.

For the Mammalogy course, Hamed divided the 80-student class into groups of fewer than 20 per three-hour lab period. Carefully, he considers how to offer each lab outdoors safely, requiring students to wear masks at all times and maintain physical distancing.

For instance, he moved tables of specimens for a lab this week into an outdoor breezeway area between Cheatham Hall and Latham Hall. Students wore gloves to handle the specimens.

COVID-19 has forced Hamed to rethink the structure of his labs.

Kevin Hamed, collegiate assistant professor at Virginia Tech, teaches his mammalogy labs outdoors to ensure safety during the pandemic. Photo by Ryan Young for Virginia Tech.
Kevin Hamed, collegiate assistant professor at Virginia Tech, teaches his Mammalogy labs outdoors to ensure safety during the pandemic. Photo by Ryan Young for Virginia Tech.

“I see things that we used to do indoors that we have learned that we can do outdoors,” he said.

Plus, Hamed said, it’s important for students to see how classes can be held safely and effectively.

“We are trying to show the students that this is a great opportunity to learn how to be adaptive and creative,” he said.

Also, with his lectures offered online via Zoom, finding guest speakers from around the world to join his classes has been easier and more cost-effective. So far, an expert on rhinoceri at the Knoxville Zoo, a giraffe researcher in Canada, and a trailblazing African American biologist have visited Hamed’s classes.

Hamed said he hopes to continue inviting guests to speak to classes via Zoom even after the restritions related to the pandemic are lifted.

“Between the guest speakers and the outdoor activities, I think they [students] are getting a more well-rounded experience,” he said. “Things are different, but we are able to really prepare our students.”

Weaver said it is particularly helpful to watch Hamed’s lectures in real time via Zoom. The lectures are at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and while tuning in from her apartment, Weaver can ask questions by unmuting herself or posting comments in the chat box. She said she receives immediate feedback from Hamed.

“We can still learn in a safe way,” Weaver said. “My professors have been really flexible, just trying to work with you so that you can still get the experience that you want to have.”

This semester in particular, Weaver said she’s thankful for Hamed’s in-person, hands-on labs, especially as she applies for jobs after graduation. Many potential employeers seek applicants with certain kinds of experience, such as knowing how to use a bat detector. 

“I can say ‘I learned how to use that during one of my courses,’” Weaver said.

— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone