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Dr. Sarah Hansen, PhD

Senior Lecturer in the Discipline of Department of Chemistry

Dr. Sarah Hansen teaches the introductory general chemistry lab, a course she has taught since 2002, through an inquiry-based learning approach. The course enrolls 180 undergraduate students that are at different places in their chemistry journey. Dr. Hansen is dedicated to meeting her students where they are to ensure that they can all learn chemistry. With the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020, Dr. Hansen hit pause to reflect on what really mattered, what students really needed to learn, and how to leverage the best of the online modality to support that learning. Dr. Hansen met the moment by designing with flexibility in mind, partnering with students to support their learning, leveraging multiple modalities to support student learning, and partnering with TAs, colleagues, and campus networks. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Hansen did in her course, what lessons and experiences she’s carrying forward, and the advice she has for other instructors at Columbia.

Design with Flexibility in Mind

The chemistry lab teaches students how to use techniques, how to do hands-on investigations, how to record data observations, organize thoughts, and analyze the investigation. At the core, what is being taught is argumentation, chemical reasoning, how chemists frame and solve problems, and what it means to learn, reflect, and construct reasoning and ideas. Across the lab sections, our goals are for students to do investigations, see chemistry live in action but we are really interested in meaningful reflection on how you learn, engage, and imagine the submicroscopic world.

Prior to the pandemic, I taught the way I was taught – I made small incremental changes to the course, but I was not satisfied with it. The pandemic necessitated thinking about what matters, what students needed to get out of the course, and articulating my values as an instructor. Stepping back and saying, “Well, I can’t have students in my lab, and I can’t stand next to a student and show them a technique, and I can’t give them a chemical. What do I value? What do I care about? What do I actually want to achieve?” These questions helped to distill down the goals of the course to reasoning, critique, engagement and technical skills. I did not know the learning environments of my students, their work space, their home life, whether they would be healthy, and could sequentially move forward through the course, so I redesigned the course to be adaptable. The developed course is very flexible to encourage students to make progress on their learning. 

We always want to do a good job teaching, but the bar really changed when it was the pandemic. We wanted to make sure that the lab still delivered the core kind of experiences that we intended it to. The innovations created out of necessity really enhanced the course. I can confidently say that every single person who took the online lab learned the techniques because we made sure they learned them.

Partner with Students to Support their Learning

Leverage students’ prior experience. 

It struck me how important it is to be responsive, empathetic, and explicit about our values with our students. We need to tell our students what we need to teach them, why, and how we can work together to achieve the goals. The class would be nothing without our students there. I value my students in the classroom. I value their prior experiences. I value them as whole people. My students come to the classroom with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and comfort-levels. They are not all at one place: some students have had chemistry recently, some have not for a long time; some feel confident engaging in chemistry investigations while others are very apprehensive about it and see a disconnect between their home chemical lives and the chemistry they learn academically; some are in the first semester of the chemistry lecture series, while others have completed the series. This fascinating population makes the chemistry lab the best class to teach because the students can teach each other. They are ripe for discussion and conversation and you can’t assume going into any semester or day that you know what they need. This requires me to listen to the class, to get them talking to each other, and get them reflecting on how they are engaging with the material, not just engaging with what I care about.

Empower students to take risks. 

I gave my students lab kits and asked them to practice techniques with supplies they had at home (e.g., salt, tea, lemon juice, vinegar). Everyone’s home supplies were a little different but we adapted and had meaningful conversations around questions such as: what does it mean to pipette properly? To do an acid-based calculation? To analyze kinetics data?

The TA would demonstrate, and this was followed by class discussion and students putting their understanding into their own words. Then the students recorded themselves practicing the technique with home supplies and critiqued it. They had their own tailored notes for how to do the technique better, and at the end of the course they did a practical evaluation where they took some of their home supplies and they showed us they could do the techniques. I was always trying to get my students to ask questions. While working with the kits at home they had to ask questions about what was confusing about the technique, the concept, the calculations or the analysis. They had to visually identify what to hold up to the Zoom. Having to verbalize gave students a voice in the process of learning. It gave them that independence. 

Although the students practiced on their own since we were not physically standing next to them, we created safety nets. For anyone who could not do techniques, we met with them on Zoom, and made sure they could. In the online environment, students had greater independence and a voice; they engaged in critique, applied techniques, refined their problem solving and studying approaches, and increased their comfort levels with chemistry. My students told me over and over again that they felt more confident in their skills, something that never really happened when the course was in-person. 

Since the pandemic, we have added a pre-course practical in addition to the post-course practical. I give my students some salt, some pieces of paper, some equipment, and I say, “give it a try! As long as you reflect on the assignment and you submit it, you get full credit. If you’re not sure how to do a technique, guess! Take a look at the equipment and try to guess which one you might use”. This sparks students’ curiosity. They want to know how to do the technique effectively. This creates an environment where they want to talk to each other about what it means to do the technique correctly. They want to practice the skills. We’re giving them a chance, we are giving them space. We are giving students a voice to say what they can and cannot do, what they are comfortable with, what they want to become more comfortable with, and what they want to get out of the class which aligns honestly with what we want them to get out of it, because we craft the experience in a way that allows them to really set themselves up framing the semester for success.

I make sure to share the course value with my students. I give them lots of low stakes opportunities to reflect. I ask them to take chances, but I let them know that the values are there to give them safe ways to take chances. We were asking students to take a risk of speaking up, to recognize what they bring to the classroom, and to contribute, and that is a risk. We value our diverse learners: students who feel they belong in the chemistry classroom, and students are who are apprehensive, students who are really great at math, students who are very uncomfortable applying the math to the chemistry, students who have this imagination about the particulate world, and students who feel like chemistry is this very abstract thing that is separate from their their daily life.

Share your course values and trust your students. 

Early on when we went online, there were conversations on chemistry learning forums about academic dishonesty, punitive policies, Chegg, cheating, and how to control the situation. I was so overwhelmed by the pandemic, I did not have the energy to distrust my students. I felt so isolated from my students, I wanted to connect to them. At the beginning of the course, I am very explicit about the academic integrity policy. I lay out the expectations, that my focus is on their learning, and I tell my students that I trust them. I’ve designed my low stakes assessments accordingly, encouraging my students to take risks (the quizzes are worth only 90 out of 729 points for the course). Students complete 15 minute open-note online quizzes, a practice I continue to use. They have the flexibility to take each quiz whenever they want over a 5 day period. They receive feedback upon completion. Similarly, the redesigned lab reports promote learning and academic integrity. Students are encouraged to engage with their peers in conversation about the inquiry-based lab but in the end each student has to do the lab which is no longer a cookbook-style lab in which every student is doing the same thing.

I recognize that life is unpredictable. I am not questioning my students’ commitment to the class if they are late on an assignment, I’m wondering how I can best support them. During the pandemic, I started saying: “these deadlines are guide points to get us through the course. If you need to catch your breath, just let me know, I can give you an extension. If you ask for a couple extensions, I’m going to try to figure out how I can best support you. If there’s extenuating circumstances, we want to get you the support you need possibly outside the class. Having something due at noon on a particular day does not actually achieve the learning goal. What achieves it is giving you an opportunity to actually engage with the material.”

Leverage Multiple Modalities to Support Student Learning

When teaching laboratory techniques in the in-person environment, we would show students how to do a technique, they would do it, we were there next to them, and we would assume they knew how to do it. When we taught lab techniques online, I was not going to let anyone leave the online lab without learning the techniques they needed. I was able to demonstrate the techniques and show students views of the equipment more clearly than I could in-person, for instance, I could hold a pipette so much closer to the camera so that students could see things more clearly on screen than they could in the classroom.

I can seamlessly shift between breakout rooms with small problem solving into me lecturing and go back and forth. No modality is perfect, but I can use the benefits of the online modality to not only teach in the moment, but then have that saved for students when they need to go back and look at it when they want to reference it, when they want to discuss it asynchronously online. 

We also adapted the course so that the lectures are recorded and students have access to them online. They can go back and revisit the material. They have the opportunity to actively engage in asynchronous discussions, a practice we played up since the pandemic. I recognize that not every moment is the moment to learn chemistry but I know my students are committed to the class and to their success in the class, and I want to give them the tools to learn when they’re ready. 

Since the return to in-person learning, there have been instances when students are unable to come to class and need to complete the lab online and that makes such a rich environment, because the student who is online has to ask their in-person peers to show them what matters, they have to ask to get all the information, and describe the experiment. They take pictures of the experiment, of themselves practicing the techniques, developing their chemistry skills, they are having these reflective conversations and solving problems the way chemists do.

Partner with TAs, Colleagues, and Campus Networks

The course redesign was very collaborative. To improve the course, I began reflecting on my own, drawing on what I learned from the CTL. I could not have innovated without the support of my department, my chemistry colleagues, the Office of the Provost, and my TA. In 2020, I told my TA, Gabriella Smith, that I wanted to create a lab that was not just online, but that was better online, using what is unique about the online environment and the hands-on kits that were distributed. She jumped right in. We asked our students for feedback, created open conversation with them, gathered anonymous feedback as recommended by the CTL midway through the semester. We reflected on the feedback, determined what we could change and shared this back to the students. This approach really paid off because students volunteered ideas, they suggested things, through these moments of reflection, they became more aware of their role in the learning process. For instance, I had one student tell me last semester: “my dean told me I should really view the faculty I work with as collaborators in my learning and your class embodied, it really made me view us as working together” that is what we were trying to achieve.

The department was extremely supportive of sending out kits, of trying new things, of adapting, and that extended both from the beginning of the pandemic through the present. We continue to iterate on the lectures and our lab manual which Kim Lee Granger, a former Columbia instructor, continues to collaborate with us on. Receiving the support of the Office of the Provost through Teaching and Learning grants first in 2015 and then in 2021 and the in-kind support of the CTL has enabled the innovations to continue. 

Dr. Hansen shares her course innovations.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Build in time for reflection. 

We need to engage in a collaborative learning process with our students, to reflect with ourselves and reflect with our students. Let’s look at how we can support, adapt and view students in an asset-based substantive conversation. Whenever possible, try to get critique into your course, critical reflection, developing not only on student skills such as problem solving, but also how they engage with each other, how they engage with the course, how they engage with the material and the learning process. Those reflective learning strategies have been very effective in helping students learn in my course, and I do believe they’d be helpful in pretty much any course. Have a conversation with yourself, and maybe even your department. Questions to think about include: what matters? What is the substance not the style of what you are teaching? How can you make it adaptive to meet students where they are and where they need to go?

I would like to hope we do not go back to “normal”. I would like to hope that we take our experiences and we learn from the great things that have happened and we recognize that many students were more included during the pandemic than they have ever been before, and we keep those students in the conversation.

The pandemic changed the way I saw my role as an instructor. My job is to help students learn and I am going to do whatever I have to do to achieve that. The University trusted me to fulfill my teaching responsibilities while all courses were online. I have documented the learning gains during that time and we do not have to go back to prior practices just because we used to do them. I’ve stayed at Columbia for so long because it is a community and an environment that values innovative teaching where I feel like I can really have a meaningful conversation around chemistry learning, which is what I love. Though pandemic teaching was not perfect, none of these innovations would have happened. I never want to go back to how it was before because so much has been gained. It is critical for us to create a space where people feel like they can take risks, where our students know that we are going to teach in the ways that best serve them, and adapt as we need to.

Seek support to innovate. 

I would not have been able to do what I did without my department, the Office of the Provost, and CTL as well as my department valuing innovative teaching practices, but also risk taking in instruction. It is a calculated experience-based risk, but it is scary to not teach students with cookbook labs and let go of having all students do the same lab experiment. It’s also scary to ask 180 students to talk, to reflect and not have that control in the classroom. I have felt very supported at Columbia to be able to try new things and to open up chemistry to those who learn differently, those who think differently, those who have so much value to contribute to our conversations and maybe are not well served by the way we have always taught, and so finding ways to shift towards an asset-based model of instruction, where we say “we are thrilled to have you in this class, because you bring so much to the conversation that will happen on this day, in this semester, in this environment, and it will never be the same.” I get to open doors for students who did not see themselves as succeeding in the class, or going into chemistry or going into science. That’s the thing that I’ve really been thankful for during my time at Columbia is the opportunities to keep trying these things and doing these things.