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How STEM students are adapting to online learning

Olivia Frenkel

Staff writer

The switch to online education has not been an easy transition for most. From shaky internet connections to lapses in motivation to the awkward two seconds between when the professor says goodbye but hasn’t clicked “end meeting,” students everywhere are learning to adapt to learning remotely. However, some of these adaptations entail more changes and frustrations than others. Many students pursuing STEM majors have left behind research projects and lab proposals and are now pursuing their education in different ways.

One of these students is Daniel Fang (‘21), a chemistry major with a focus in biochemistry. In his experimental biochemistry class, he explained, “We’ve been learning about what the general experimental procedure would have been like by using previous years data to simulate the actual data analysis.” However, since he is not doing the actual experiments himself, he said that the quality of education, though it is the best it can be considering the circumstances, does not equate to the practical knowledge he would have otherwise gained.

For seniors working on their thesis, distance learning has taken an even bigger toll. Lauren Stiles (‘20) is a graduating physics major who was in the process of completing her research lab and thesis experience. She had originally designed a 3D-printed flow cell that contained a metal sample that would be shot by a laser, which would create nanoparticles. However, the labs closed before she was able to 3D print. 

“I have been using supplies I find around the house and my completed design uses tupperware and cardboard boxes. The saddest part is not getting to test my design with the laser,” said Stiles. She considers herself lucky that she was able to bring home supplies, but said, “I miss having the people around me that would drag me to the library or physics hearth and just motivate me in general.” 

Despite her frustrations, she is appreciative of her professor’s support. “My thesis advisor has started using Asana [an online project management service] to assign us tasks which has broken down the daunting process of writing and presenting a thesis into more manageable steps,” said Stiles. “We have Zoom calls four times a week. I showed her my working design and know how excited she was, so that made me happy.”

Lila Faust (‘21) shares frustrations similar to Fang and Stiles. She was in the process of writing a white paper, which is an in-depth research paper on a specific area of science that is not well-known, and was unable to continue as she had hoped. “I’ve gone from working with a friend to study the reproductive behaviors of newts to researching alone by reading papers and drawing pictures,” Faust said. She had been studying newts for the last year. “I don’t think I’m getting quality education just because of the kinds of classes I am taking,” she explained. “It feels like I’m not really learning the material and I’m just doing the work for it.” 

Cameron Taggesall (‘21) described the changes made to their classes, but also emphasized the support of her professors in the physics department. “I’m in an advanced lab techniques class that used to be hours long in the labs with lasers,” she explained. “Since we can’t be in-person, the professors sent each student electric kits for us to work with.” Though it is inherently more difficult to learn through the use of these small circuits, Taggesall said that the troubleshooting process has been made easy through the professors’ hard work. “We have to show them our work through Zoom with bad camera angles and bad camera quality, but it really is the best it can be right now.”

For students everywhere, but especially for those taking classes in STEM, it has been understandably difficult to accept the changes that have come with distance learning. Walking away from lab experience and year-long research proposals is not something STEM students expected to do this semester, and by no means has it been easy. However, Willamette students, despite the difficulties, have found ways to adapt the best they can.

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