By Abby Weingarten
Scientific research may be interactively hands-on by nature, but during the hybrid-learning-based fall semester at New College, professors are getting more creative with their lesson plans.
In the Ecology Laboratory of Emily Heffernan, Ph.D., associate professor of biology and environmental studies, two Novo Collegians are conducting their insect-based class experiments entirely at home. To accommodate these off-campus learners, Heffernan recently packed and mailed boxes of supplies to them—measuring tools, vegetable seeds, plastic petri dishes and insect cultures in sealed vials.
“This lab is a great example of our students continuing their hands-on New College education in a remote setting,” said Heffernan, adding that 10 or more of her lab students meet in combinations of Zoom groups and in-person masked sessions. “The remote students can conduct several experiments along with the rest of the class.”
These student experiments involve testing resource partitioning in ants, allelopathy in local plants, and using living insects to validate the Lotka-Volterra competition model. Each student is contributing replicates to a larger class data set.
Bella Shuler, a second-year transfer student with a marine biology area of concentration, is one of Heffernan’s 100 percent remote participants.
“I’m enjoying being able to collaborate with other students even though I’m currently remote,” Shuler said. “And I’m excited for the upcoming experiments we have including insects.”
Because of the ongoing outreach from her professors, Shuler said that learning from home this fall has been even more fulfilling than she expected.
“The transition to being a remote student at New College wasn’t easy at first, but this semester has been really great because the professors are so accommodating,” Shuler said. “In addition to Dr. Heffernan sending me supplies for our lab, another one of my professors is also sending me supplies, so it’s been really nice to have supportive professors at New College.”
For Heffernan, the semester has presented multiple challenges as an instructor, but her training as a tropical ecologist and entomologist has helped, she said.
“In the field, we learn to solve problems creatively, and I am certainly drawing on that background,” Heffernan said.
To encourage her student scientists to cultivate similar skills, Heffernan is devoting much of the fall to bolstering their professional development. Collaborating with the Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO), Heffernan is ensuring that all of her students end the semester having applied for a job, created a curriculum vitae and undergone a mock job interview.
“My students are also engaged in reviewing and analyzing citizen science data for other national ecological projects, and making connections with other ecologists and field station projects,” Heffernan said. “Students run experiments that test classical ecological theory and evaluate the patterns we see in nature.”
Her students are learning to prepare and present their work for scientific conferences, and to write professional-style manuscripts—all in addition to working in the Ecology Lab. And though the remote and in-person students may not be physically together this fall, they are cooperatively contributing to several final class projects—a skill that will likely serve them in their future scientific careers.
“My remote students are working along with their own materials, and together we generate a lot of data that we share as a class and students analyze,” Heffernan said. “I have been so impressed by the way our students (remote and on campus) have been supporting each other and collaborating.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.