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Science courses adapt to challenges of remote learning

April 16, 2020

Before the College transitioned to remote learning, students in Professor of Physics Madeleine Msall’s Methods of Experimental Physics course worked for six hours a week in the basement laboratory of Searles Science Building using sophisticated equipment. Now, those same students are building magnet-powered pendulums to measure latitude, investigating the height of clouds from their backyards and testing the ability of ultraviolet light to disinfect face masks, all from home.

Msall said that even without the conventional equipment, her students still have access to one powerful piece of technology: their smartphones.

“There’s been a lot of development recently by various people who teach physics to hack your phone to get all the sensor data,” Msall said in a video interview with the Orient. “Your phones have a whole lot of sensors in them that can be really helpful to these measurement projects, so we’re not doing everything with string and tape.”

In the absence of lab space, students are using phone sensors, along with other supplies shipped to them by the physics department, to complete an independent research project.

Msall noted that the remote class has given students a crash-course in independent research.

“We do have regular check-ins, but it’s quite different from the ease in which you can lean back on your professor in a normal course experience,” Msall said.

Caroline Kranefuss ’20, a physics major in the class, has decided to use her at-home research to study the ways that ultraviolet C (UVC) rays can be used to disinfect N95 masks, which medical professionals use to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).

“UVC light has very short wavelengths, which means that it’s very well absorbed by viruses and their DNA,” Kranefuss said in a phone interview with the Orient. “When viruses and their DNA absorb that light, it’s able to disrupt both the virus and the DNA, which is why it’s so good as a disinfectant.“

Kranefuss uses a mercury bulb to create UVC light and an array of sensing equipment lent to her by the physics department to measure how much light penetrates the different layers of the N95 mask. The equipment allows her to know if the light can pass through all the layers to effectively disinfect the mask.

“The biggest reason why I studied physics at Bowdoin is because I want to use those tools to be able to help people,” Kranefuss said.

Other members of the science and mathematics faculty have made a concerted effort to link information about the coronavirus directly to their course material.

Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Danielle Dube, who is teaching General Chemistry and Biochemistry this semester, has been highlighting the real-world applications of her course material.

The specific type of enzyme the class studied, called protease, is the same type that the coronavirus needs to cause an infection. Dube and Biochemistry Lab Instructor Kate Farnham said that studying the protease enzyme can help students understand how COVID-19 operates and how it can be stopped.

“The students in the biochemistry class and in the biochemistry major are really the ones that are going to be, in the future, designing vaccines and tackling really challenging problems like this,” Farnham said in a phone interview with the Orient. “I think this has provided us with an intriguing—certainly engaging—context in which to study biochemistry.”

To replace some of the class’s lost in-person lab time, Farnham has added a computer-based lesson at the end of the semester, where students will use a technique called bioinformatics to study and visualize the structure of COVID-19.

“You don’t necessarily have to have a micropipette in your hand to learn biochemistry,” Farnham said.

Both Dube and Associate Professor of Mathematics Jack O’Brien are assigning recently published papers about the coronavirus in the journal “Science” for their students to read.

Additionally, O’Brien has also elected to use real data sets from the pandemic, which he describes as far messier than the ones he typically uses to teach statistics.

“There’s a reason in a stats class you give people clean data, because data in the wild is heterogeneous and weird and complex and difficult,” said O’Brien in a video interview with the Orient. “And so by giving them these data that are kind of wild, it makes the problems substantially harder.”

The added difficulty associated with the “wild data” has also forced O’Brien to narrate and thoroughly explain his mathematical processes in his video lectures, something, he says, that normally arises during in-person instruction but can be lacking in remote learning.

In his upper level course, students have weekly assignments that include the constantly updating data. O’Brien said students have even gone back and revised their assignments as new data is released. He said that despite the increased difficulty, students are appreciating their understanding of statistics now more than ever.

“COVID time has made us all statisticians,” O’Brien said.

For Dube, Farnham and O’Brien, using the coronavirus as a teaching tool has fostered critical thinking skills in a time when in-person interactions aren’t possible.

Other faculty, like Professor of Physics Mark Battle, have taken a different approach. In his course Energy, Physics and Technology, which is designed specifically for humanities and social science majors, Battle has chosen to maintain the class’s focus on climate change, rather than shift to the coronavirus. He said he considered introducing some course material related to the coronavirus, but ultimately he decided that his students were likely already too immersed in the world of the pandemic.

Battle has modified projects for his course, which used to include measuring the wind speeds up and down the sides of Coles Tower and measuring the background radiation levels of Mass Hall with a Gieger counter. A new project will have students measure shadows using a ruler to determine the path of the sun in the sky to see if solar panel tracking technology is worth it. He hopes this project will develop widely applicable scientific acumen and critical thinking skills.

“I would hope that the exposure to science and the scientific method and critical thinking that students get in an [Inquiry in the Natural Sciences] class at Bowdoin would help with a societal response in a situation like this. That’s my hope,” said Battle in a phone interview with the Orient.

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One comment:

  1. Constance Norton says:

    Excellent and informative article. I am pleased and proud to say Caroline Norton Kranefuss is my first born grandchild.

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