Capstones, labs and other hands-on courses affected by COVID-19

Butler students transition from hands-on courses to alternatives. Photo courtesy of butler.edu.

DOUGLAS ROCHE III | ASSISTANT CULTURE EDITOR, SOCIAL MEDIA MANAGER | droche@butler.edu   

For nearly two weeks, all Butler University courses have been taught using online resources like Zoom and Panopto. The switch came after a series of responses to the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic — eventually leading to the cancelation of all athletic events, in-person class meetings, all on-campus events and spring commencement. Now, Butler students seek to close out a semester that has been riddled with shock, confusion and uncertainty. 

For some courses, the composition will not be too affected by the switch over to online tools — especially ones that already have a summer offering online like photography or graphic design. Furthermore, these courses are not as hands-on as a capstone, a Personal Well-Being credit or a lab-based class. Classes under these categories hinge on a physical presence, allowing students to effectively collaborate and immerse themselves in the course material.

 

Senior capstone: The professor

Mark Rademacher, strategic communication department chair, teaches each section of the major’s capstone course: Public Communications Campaigns. In this class, students develop a comprehensive, research-based communications campaign for a real nonprofit organization in the Indianapolis area. The course culminates all of the classes strategic communication majors take during their time at Butler, as well as fulfills the Indianapolis Community Requirement.

Save for having to condense his syllabi for one lost week of classes due to the spring break extension, Rademacher’s plan for the remainder semester in each class has not changed. He noted the fact that there was already “a task ahead of us” promised to the client. 

One addition Rademacher is implementing to his class meetings is devoting time to check in with his 33 students from a mental health and well-being standpoint.

“I don’t want it to feel like school as normal because it’s not, and as faculty we need to acknowledge that,” Rademacher said. “My hope is that through all of that, it keeps us aware that while school remains important, for some of you — maybe all of you — there’s bigger things, and school can be an escape. I don’t want it to be as big of a stressor as it normally is because there’s enough stress in our life.”

Due to the unique relationship the class has with the ICR component, students will still receive their credit for the graduation requirement, as Rademacher pointed out the work itself has value to the Indianapolis client. Rademacher also said the online class structure did not interfere with the on-site work each class has already undergone, while resources like Zoom allow communications with the clients to continue — no matter where they are physically located. 

“You’re still addressing marginalized population, you’re still wrestling with a nonprofit organization that is trying to make the lives of those individuals better, you’re going ahead and creating something that has a great deal of value to the organization, which is taking your knowledge and expertise about strategic communication and how they can communicate better about their mission.” Rademacher said. 

The spring break extension led Rademacher to cancel a portion of the class that entailed the analysis of the survey data; however, he believed the biggest aspect current capstone students will not get out of this semester that past students have is the physical collaboration element. Rademacher’s concern was the bonds students would typically make during group meetings may get “lost in translation” because of the new circumstances.

“Campaigns is kind of that right of passage for StratCom seniors, and when you think about how students typically navigate the time demands and group work aspects, it’s getting together in Fairbanks, oftentimes on the weekend, sometimes late at night,” Rademacher said. “It’s overcoming the challenges presented to you, but also dealing with the critique that I provide and having that moment of, ‘oh my gosh, Rademacher’s completely off his rocker right now, but we’re gonna get through this and have fun doing it.’ That stuff happens organically when you’re in the same space dealing with the pressure that’s going on.”

In terms of grading his students, Rademacher does not plan to lower his self-proclaimed high standards for quality work, but plans to exercise “max flexibility” with deadlines because of challenges such as students being in different timezones, as well as the new reality in general. 

While the decision was difficult to ensure his standards did not change, Rademacher noted his decision is also to ensure his students’ experience is consistent with past capstone students. 

“I’m not going to reduce my standards because the client expects professional work, and that obligation to the client is what’s guiding all of my decisions about how I evaluate work,” Rademacher said. “Is it something you’re ultimately going to be proud of presenting to the client? Does it reflect your true potential as a group? I can’t, in good conscience, reduce that standard simply because of the change in our reality. I’m not imposing penalties on late work, that’s gone by the wayside.”

Additionally, Rademacher recognizes there are real world implications that are applicable to current capstone students, pointing out the change in class structure possessed benefits. These included an introduction to remote work, which he noted as a common practice in communications. 

“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that all students are getting real experiences that demonstrate adaptability to unintended, unexpected situations,” Rademacher said. “From a strategic communications standpoint, and I would suspect other majors as well, the reality of remote work is going to become more of a common aspect of a lot of peoples’ careers, and students are getting firsthand experience managing that as a result of this shift.” 

Rademacher wants to reiterate to all students that him and all faculty are committed to them holistically.

“We want to support [students] however we can,” Rademacher said. “For some, that’s academics, for others, that needs to be personal. That could be telling a student it’s okay to take time for you, engage in practices that make you happy and are not school related. To make sure you’re allowing yourself time for those efforts within the course of your day. I think online education has a great deal of promise, but right now we’re doing something that none of us signed up for, so making sure students are doing what they can to practice self care is essential.”

 

Senior Capstone: The student 

Kait Wilbur, a senior strategic communication major, is currently enrolled in Rademacher’s capstone class. For Wilbur, who lives in Central Illinois, the geographical change from home to campus played into her study habits throughout her undergraduate career.

“A lot of the study habits and getting motivated to work habits that I have been creating for myself throughout college had a lot to do with switching locations and putting myself into places that were optimal for studying without noise, or ambient noise,” Wilbur said. “Now, there aren’t really any options.”

Wilbur described the transition as slow, but she is now getting over the hurdle. One obstacle Wilbur noted is the difficulty for students to give their undivided attention to a class session when everyone is separated. 

“It feels like there’s less accountability when there’s not actual people sitting near you,” she said. 

Wilbur, however, has prioritized the capstone more than other classes due to its significance in the strategic communication curriculum. 

“I have paid special attention to Campaigns more so than other classes because it’s of such heightened importance, so that’s going to be the first class thing that I will need to get readjusted to,” Wilbur said.

For Wilbur’s group, they have sought to translate their approach to the course to online — weekly in-person meetings in Fairbanks have moved to Zoom, which she hopes will promote participation.

 

Pharmacy: Finding new routine in the same structure 

Conversely, pharmacy students have already been accustomed to Zoom meetings and pre-recorded classes. Griffin Blunk, a senior pharmacy major, has already used online resources to prepare for exams and communicate with his professor.

“For us at least, the transition has been, from a technological standpoint, pretty easy because all of our tests are online,” Blunk said. “All of our lectures are already recorded throughout the year, so we always go back to watch those. We have experience with Zoom, too.”

Blunk said pharmacy students also already have experience using Zoom for question-and-answer sessions, prior to the pandemic moving all classes online.  

For Blunk, the challenge has been getting into a new groove of things without being on campus. 

“The hardest part so far has been just getting into a different routine,” he said. “…So right now it’s kind of hard to watch all of the lectures in a timely fashion to be able to make the question and answer sessions as useful as we can.”

All students at Butler are required to complete a lab-based course as part of their core curriculum. Pharmacy students, however, typically take one or two labs each semester — all of which are drastically affected by the shut down of campus. 

Blunk’s lab focuses on dosage and initially entailed hands-on projects, but is now composed of performing calculations with his classmates on Zoom. 

“It’s a lot of social interaction on Zoom because we break out in groups on Zoom, which is nice,” Blunk said. “It’s probably the most social interaction I have throughout the week, which makes it kinda fun. The downfall is that we can’t get that hands-on experience in.”

Blunk’s professors have not addressed whether or not the matter in which students are graded will change, believing they are seeing how the first few weeks go before making any significant changes. While Blunk is not concerned about receiving credit for his current courses, he is curious to see what will happen with his summer courses.

“I don’t know if Butler has addressed summer courses, but I know other schools have transitioned everything to online for this summer,” Blunk said. “I’m taking nine credit hours this summer, so it will be interesting to be what happens with that,” Blunk said. 

Typically, pharmacy students are introduced to brief on-site rotational at a hospital in the summer after their fifth year. For now, Blunk is planning to begin this rotational work at St. Vincent Hospital in the fall 2020 semester, barring the current situation does not extend into then. 

Fourth year pharmacy students were relocated from rotational work to online work in order to graduate on time without potentially being exposed to coronavirus-positive patients.

 

Personal Well Being: Calculable and incalculable losses

Lisa Farley, associate professor of human movement and health sciences, is teaching four classes this semester; she finds herself busier than normal when it comes to preparation for those classes.

Farley teaches Walking, Wagging, and Wellness: a class that gives students the opportunity to volunteer at the Humane Society of Indianapolis and walk dogs to fulfill their Personal Well Being core requirement. 

Farley noted the class typically fills its 20 student capacity by the end of the first day of registration each semester. Students that get into the course will meet on campus for the first class — every other session takes place at the Humane Society, where they sit in on training and perform hands on experiences such as walking dogs and working with cats. 

Due to the coronavirus, the Humane Society suspended volunteer work, which Butler students are considered participants in. The class of 20 students typically provides around 400 hours of volunteer work to the Humane Society. Because of the suspension, Farley said her class has “taken on a really new look.”

On-site volunteer work at the Humane Society has been substituted with a new emphasis on students logging their walking and stress management. Farley seeks to vary the means in which they log their activity, whether that be with or without a four-footed companion. 

“While we can’t physically [walk and learn stress management] at the Humane Society, our students can still actively take part in that [at home],” Farley said.

Farley encourages her students to involve their pets or family members at home in their walking and stress management, as well as to log their experiences.

“I try to be that professor who does different things all the time [to avoid repetition],” Farley said. “For instance, for class [this week], they were supposed to take a walk and document it with a photo of where they’re walking and who they’re with. It could be an animal, by themselves, with their significant other, family member or whoever. Then, they have to do some journaling about it. So that’s one portion of the physical activity piece.”

Wagging, Walking, and Wellness also fulfills students’ Indianapolis Community Requirement. Despite being unable to volunteer on-site, Farley adjusted this aspect of the course to fulfill the requirement for her students.

“I still have them doing some of the work they started, they have to make a public service announcement for the community about something they may not know about,” Farley said. 

Farley has her students continuing their research on a selected topic, such as the declawing of a cat. Instead of creating a one-off public service announcement, she asked students to turn it into a campaign-like media blast for either the Humane Society or their own local shelter. 

Farley recognized there would be aspects of the class that currently-enrolled students will not be able to get out of the class in their entirety, as compared to students that have taken it before. 

“I always start the class asking students what they most look forward to, more than half the class is most looking forward to cuddling with some animals and enjoying that relationship with those animals,” Farley said. “Seeing them get their forever homes is a joy they anticipate and it’s a joy they get to experience when [the class] is there.”

Particularly, she felt the students’ connections to the animals and value of their work may feel incomplete.

“I think that’s a huge loss,” Farley said. “I don’t think all of the loss is gone to the community, I just don’t think that personal connection will feel as tight as it would’ve if we had been there.” 

Farley has sought to be collaborative with her students when making adjustments to how her classes are structured, but recognized that the lack of personal interaction is an inevitable barrier. 

“It’s been such a challenge for everybody,” Farley said. “I, we miss our students, and the human to human experience is not something you can calculate in terms of structuring a class. I want to be open in helping ease the learning process, and it’s been fun hearing what they’ve had to say and suggest for it.” 

 

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