About a month ago, Assistant Professor of Chemistry Mark Macbeth would look out to his General Chemistry lecture to see 57 first-year students in their seats inside a Gallahue Hall classroom, taking notes on chemical bonding.
Today, when he looks at his class, it’s like watching a more-crowded version of the intro to The Brady Bunch as the same 57 students pop up in little squares of video on Zoom. Since Butler University switched to online learning on March 19, the students and professor have used the popular video conferencing app three times a week for review sessions of the video lectures Macbeth posts on Canvas.
“I thought it was going to be chaos, but you roll up your sleeves and work through it,” says Macbeth with a laugh. “The students can still ask questions, and we still work through the problems together.”
The General Chemistry course also includes a lab section. With the academic labs closed for the semester, Macbeth says it was more of a challenge to figure out how to give his students proper lab experience online. Before, the students would strap on gloves, goggles, and lab coats for hands-on work—setting up the experiment, writing out reaction equations, and pouring the chemicals.
Macbeth decided to create demonstration videos of the experiments. In these “virtual labs,” staff and faculty from the Clowes Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry recorded experiments on concepts such as equilibrium and saturation. Ammonia added to silver chloride causes it to dissolve, and light pink cobalt solution mixed with chloride changes to dark blue, which makes for easier observation from a student’s laptop.
“It’s up to the students to interpret that data,” says Macbeth, whose current research focuses on the biochemical analysis of nucleic acid-protein interactions, as well as RNA and DNA editing. “At the end of the video, they do an online quiz about what their observations were and what concepts were used during the reaction.”
Students say the transition to online lectures has been smooth. For Healthcare and Business major Mason Runkel, not having the chance to be in a physical lab to refine his fine measurement skills has been the toughest aspect of learning from his home in Bloomington, Illinois. But he says Macbeth’s use of visuals and voiceovers on the digital lessons allows him to understand concepts just as well as he would in the classroom.
Chemistry major Audrey Wojtowicz says she was concerned about losing valuable lab experience, especially for complex techniques. An upcoming lab will focus on titration—the slow addition of one solution of a known concentration to a known volume of another solution of unknown concentration until the reaction reaches neutralization. However, Macbeth’s availability during the three weekly review sessions, as well as his office hours over Zoom, has eased some worries.
“Especially now, if you have concerns, go to your professor,” Wojtowicz says. “Everyone is in the same boat. Admittedly, I was stressed out, but I was assured it will be OK. Faculty members understand, and they are going to adapt to our needs for next semester.”
Macbeth has been impressed with his students’ performance the last few weeks, but he knows the online learning transition can sometimes be tough. He wants students to know he is there for them for the rest of the semester and beyond.
“It’s not an ideal situation at all for us,” Macbeth says, “but we’re trying to make it work the best we can. We’re trying to get the students to have some sort of learning process about chemistry, learn some chemical processes, and learn to interpret data.
“To the students who are really uncertain about this, I just want to let them know we are on their side. We want to help them get through this successfully and prepare them for their future courses.”
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