Northwestern STEM faculty seek ways to adjust online classes for underclassmen

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Illustration by Emma Ruck

STEM professors have tried various ways to improve the learning experience for underclassmen. In addition to the difficult course material, online classes have complicated the instructions.

Rosalie Liu, Reporter

Since underclassmen no longer pack into an auditorium for large lecture classes, professors and teaching assistants have had to adapt their STEM curriculum for the remote format.

Some professors have additional videos on top of lectures to help deliver the class material. They design peer study groups to help students work on material together. Others are now willing to spend more time meeting individual students to answer questions on difficult problem sets.

Bienen sophomore Brian Vogel said his Astronomy 120 class is taught online in real time.

In a normal setting, students raise hands during lectures if they have questions. Now Vogel’s professor delivesthe lectures on Zoom without any interruption. His teaching assistants are responsible for answering any questions in the chat box.

“It is an introductory STEM class that has more than a hundred students,” Vogel said. “This adjustment has been useful.”

Weinberg sophomore Tony Luo, a computer science major, said all the STEM courses he is taking require pre-recorded material.

Before going to lecture meetings, students in Luo’s classes have to learn material from two to three videos every day. Faculty provide these additional materials to prepare students for essential concepts that will be further discussed in lectures.

“Also, many faculties are putting efforts trying to get to know the students personally,” Luo said. “My computer science professor provides one-on-one meetings, despite the huge class size. Everyone gets to know the professor individually.”

Ph.D. candidate Mengxuan Yang, who moderates a Math 220 discussion section, said he gave his students 40 minutes to discuss the material last year.

Now, Yang said he goes over the problem sets for 35 minutes and randomly assigns students to different breakout rooms. Since most students are freshmen, he sees breakout rooms as an opportunity for students to meet new peers through Zoom.

“We try ways to improve their experience,” Yang said. “Since our notes are all digital right now, we are able to share them with students so that they don’t have to spend time busy copying down our notes.”

For STEM classes, it is both difficult and time-consuming for faculty to handwrite digitally. Many students do not have iPads or other digital tablets and therefore cannot share their deduction processes with each other effectively.

Weinberg freshman Payson Zhang attends an optional Math 230 study group, but even then, she runs into difficulties.

“We simply don’t have enough time to cover all the materials for math. Sometimes we also have trouble seeing the images on screen,” Zhang said.

Yang acknowledged that online classes have complicated the communication between students and faculties.

“Everyone is adjusting right now,” Yang said. “As faculties, we are still seeking new ways to improve online experience for freshmen and sophomores.”

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