Growing A Chemistry Community

October 22, 2020
Ideas That MatterJulia Winter

Brittland DeKorver, a Professor of Chemistry at Grand Valley State University

catches up with Julia about the popular Facebook community she founded and grew. They discuss how it helps instructors and students, especially during this time where remote learning has grown exponentially.

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S2E3 Transcription

Intro (00:03):
Welcome to ideas that matter where we meet people, making a difference in education Julia's guest today is Brittland DeKorver of Grand Valley State University. Together, they discuss the Facebook group community Brittland grew and how this has helped instructors and students navigate learning through the pandemic.

Julia Winter (00:20):
Hi, this is Julia winter with another Ideas that Matter podcast, and today we're talking with Brittland DeKorver of Grand Valley state university in Allendale, Michigan in the chemistry department. And I reached out to Brittland. We have a bit of a history because she's worked with our company for a few years back, but I really reached out to her about a Facebook group and it's a Facebook group that grew throughout the summer. And I just wanted to see where she was with this group of chemistry professors helping each other through the teaching in the pandemic, so I'm just going to turn it over to Brittland. She could make an introduction of herself and then the genesis of this Facebook group.

Brittland DeKorver (01:05):
Thank you, Julie. Thank you so much for asking me on your podcast. I'm really excited to be here talking with you. It's always a pleasure to talk with you. The Facebook group, I almost, I feel like came out of my own sense of worry and desire to have control over the situation, because I could see that we were going to need to do something very, very different. And so when I was on spring break, the first week of March, I was just thinking about how am I going to transition my class if I need to suddenly start to teach students who aren't able to be present, or the worst case scenario of moving entirely online was something that was still pretty far in the distance. I just wanted to make sure that if students were sick or even if they like had a cold, you know, and we wanted to make sure that we were just keeping everyone healthy, that we could not make students feel guilty for staying home with a cough, you know? So I started thinking about setting up a virtual environment where I'm streaming my classes and I explained all this to my students. When we got back from break, I was like, okay, here's where you can go and we're going to have everything on Blackboard and our learning management system. And so I had about a week of doing this when all of a sudden, very abruptly, we got the message of all right, it's all over, we're all going online. And so my colleagues who had kind of gotten wind that I was getting ready, started asking me questions, like, how are you handling this? Or what did you do for this? And what kind of equipment are you using to share your notes and those sorts of things. So I thought this would be a lot easier if we could just put all of this information somewhere that we could all just ask questions together because my colleagues also had really great ideas that then I would go back to somebody that I had talked to earlier in the day and say, so and so had this idea that I want to share with you. So I started this Facebook group and it was, I think on a Tuesday night and by the end of the week, it already had almost a thousand members and it was just, it snowballed, it got so big. Now there are over 4,000 members, people who teach chemistry at various levels, high school, college, and even some K-12 information like, you know, what do you do with science experiments, little kids at home who are maybe being schooled at home. There's a lot of information out there people have shared. And I think that the most important thing that I see happening in the group is more of just like a support system. Like we're here for each other. I think that's even more important than some of the technical information that's been shared.

Julia Winter (03:23):
I think I was one of the founding members on that Tuesday. So I was really excited to watch it grow. As a software developer, actually seeing some of the problems that faculty faced, and we took a lot of that to heart. This was actually a perfect opportunity for us to like listen in to conversations so we could solve some of the problems we've been working on that ever since. But all of a sudden, you now have another job. You are monitoring this very active Facebook group. What's the name of the Facebook group?

Brittland DeKorver (03:57):
It's called "Strategies for Teaching Chemistry Online", and I just kind of named it off the cuff. I didn't think too much about it. I just wanted to call it what I thought it was going to be and now I question was that the right name? I posted about a month or two ago about asking people's feedback on moderation because you're right, it's a big job to be managing content, managing new member requests, handling the reported posts that people take issue with. And so there's always a judgment call, right? When does a post border on companies that people have called out as being really helpful, when the conversation goes in the direction of, do we want commercial sites to be posting on here? Someone was like, well, Julia Winter of Alchemie has offered really good feedback and really good products, so I don't want to say blanket, no, you know, we want to, we want to have some information and opportunities that are generated by commercial sites, but we also don't want that person who's just posting their YouTube channel over and over again to increase their hits.

Julia Winter (04:58):
That's true. And that is actually, I remember dabbling in the forums at early on in my entrepreneurial career and I decided quickly to get away from forums just because it would be a whole person managing that forum. But now you are managing a forum. But you know, I actually look at so many of the posts and see a lot of support. I, maybe it's your wonderful job of managing it. I rarely see posts that I would take issue with as somebody in a Facebook group with 4,000 people. I'm very, very intrigued by so many, I guess I would call them hacks, different ways of solving problems. Do you have any favorites on like how to solve the writing about chemistry problem or did you see anything super creative?

Brittland DeKorver (05:50):
My favorite one is I think the DIY Lightboard, which has been a really popular posts and another one that I thought was really slick was using a pencil and a CD disk to reflect your writing on your laptop, like a document camera. It basically reflects it into your webcam. It's just such an ingenious move.

Julia Winter (06:10):
Here I am a software developer who of course is an entrepreneur and eventually wanted to sell my products. But I love, love these hacks, these free ways of solving problems. And it gets everybody thinking, Oh, I can do that too. I don't need fancy equipment. I know. I actually think my iPad pro with the pencil is just the bee's knees. I just dated myself with that, but I love my iPad pro because I can write and I can see it and I can save it in One Note. And I'm not being, advertising here. I'm just saying, that's my favorite tool for writing in a zoom call.

Brittland DeKorver (06:45):
Yeah, and it's mine too. Honestly, you got me hooked on Apple products. I think because when we met, I didn't use any Apple, anything, but yeah, but I mean, I do acknowledge that I am, I have a lot of opportunity to do that through professional development funding in my department and not everybody has the resources to buy an iPad pro or an Apple pencil. And so there needs to be a variety of solutions. And I also enjoy seeing that some of the solutions are not just tech related, but content related. How do you hack an exam so that you can be confident that it's really assessing your students' knowledge instead of their ability to use Chegg.

Julia Winter (07:26):
Exactly, and actually that gets to sort of the segue into you being an assistant professor at Grand Valley State University and moving towards your tenure decision in the middle of pandemic and having to balance all this new, online learning, but keeping a research program going. Did you have your, your students work this summer on your research projects?

Brittland DeKorver (07:51):
I had two students working this summer and both of them did an amazing job. Uh, one of my students, Arielle, managed to take project from start to finish and we got a publication submitted. And in that JCE COVID issue, the special issue that journal of chemical education did,

Julia Winter (08:07):
It's a great issue. Still making my way through that issue.

Brittland DeKorver (08:10):
Did you see the photograph that was posted in the Facebook group? It was a picture of the issue, like the paper copy and it looks like a phone book it's so thick.

Julia Winter (08:18):
Oh my, they do make paper copies still?

Brittland DeKorver (08:22):
Yeah. And so that's, a lot of the people are like, where can I get one?

Julia Winter (08:25):
Oh, that's so funny.

Brittland DeKorver (08:27):
Yeah. That issue was a big one.

Julia Winter (08:29):
I was surprised I never review any of those papers because you would think that every one of those papers needed the peer reviews. Tom, professor Holme, I was ready to go. Um, I did get some reviews afterwards, but I didn't review any of them. Kudos to all of those who are listening, who did review those papers. And very few reviewers get pats on the back, but I'm just saying, thanks for reviewing and thanks to all who submitted their papers to that addition.

Brittland DeKorver (08:57):
Yeah, a lot of labor went into that. And I think it's even more amazing that it happened during a pandemic, right. That everyone is able to give this labor at a time when they were already stretched thin.

Julia Winter (09:07):
Right. Yeah. I'm sending that out to everyone who's listening. Thank you very much for an amazing work this summer on that special Journal of Chemical Education edition.

Brittland DeKorver (09:18):
Yeah. So research has been tricky because since I do chemistry education research, a lot of my data is either collected in a classroom setting, which now classroom settings looks very different from when I started collecting that data or in face-to-face environments. And, you know, we're being discouraged from entering into extra face to face contact. So I've had to shift some of my research questions to having more, using data that is already collected or mining data that is already available in some other way. So that has been a tricky shift. And then students are already so overloaded that I do not have any research students working with me this semester and it's probably in their best interest because I would not be a very good advisor right now.

Julia Winter (10:02):
You have to actually put yourself in their shoes because a lot of them who aren't on campus are actually managing younger siblings, you know? So it's a lot of work for everyone and our students, they could be the number one instructor for their 10 and 14 year olds siblings, right?

Brittland DeKorver (10:21):
Yep. I see that in some of my students as well. That makes it more difficult, but I'm still very optimistic. And I know that the research will still be there when I have more mental capacity to devote to it, but right now being a professor, that teaching component is the majority of what I spend my time on.

Julia Winter (10:40):
So how many classes are you teaching right now?

Brittland DeKorver (10:42):
I have three sections of preparatory chemistry course, and I have one section of a senior seminar course. And I'm also working in a support capacity for our general chemistry labs.

Julia Winter (10:52):
That's a lot of work. How are the labs going?

Brittland DeKorver (10:55):
They are going. The way that we've managed it is we've split the classes in half basically. And so every week there are two groups of students and half will do an online lab and the other half do in person lab. And then the next week they rotate which group is doing which half. So that means we push out two labs each week. And every two weeks we have two new labs that are going out, which is a lot to juggle, especially since the labs had to be revised to fit this new format. And so we're basically piloting two labs at a time during the fall semester, which is when we have the most students coming through our, our general chemistry program. So it is a task, but you know, you just gotta do what is going to meet the needs of the students.

Julia Winter (11:40):
Did you go through and look at your labs? We've had a couple of conversations about lab learning and get it down to what is absolutely necessary. Or did you use the same curriculum as you had used before?

Brittland DeKorver (11:53):
We had to look really hard at what are the technical skills that we want them to walk out of this semester having and narrowing them down to things like using a volumetric pipette, using a volumetric flask and then finding which labs were the most supportive of those skills and making sure that those were the labs that they did in person, and then taking the remaining curricular materials and refashioning them into online virtual labs.

Julia Winter (12:16):
A lot of work. Did you do it yourself or did you find it online?

Brittland DeKorver (12:20):
I mean, Grand Valley, yes, has a custom curriculum.

Julia Winter (12:23):
So you as a collective at GVSU.

Brittland DeKorver (12:27):
Yes. The general chemistry instructors. So we have a wonderful lab director, her name is Mary Jo Smith. And so she basically herds all of the chemistry instructors into these collaborative committees basically to figure out what are we going to, how are we going to make this work? And so one thing that I really value about working at Grand Valley is that the instructors who are teaching the class have a lot of input into the way that they teach and what they teach. Also our department chair, Dr. Debby Harrington has a lot to do with that as well. So many people donated their time, right? They just basically worked all summer, not only to develop the labs for this fall, but to develop the summer labs, which were completely online, everything was online this summer. So it was these committees getting together to generate basically two whole new sets of lab materials, just back to back.

Julia Winter (13:15):
Wow. Did people get some of that time off that you'd need summertime sometimes is your time to reflect and do research and things like that, but sometimes you just need to stare out the window and go for walks. Were you able to gain some of that time? Where your colleagues able to find time and were they encouraged to do so?

Brittland DeKorver (13:36):
Yes, the answer is yes, but to a less extent, both for me and for my colleagues. And I think that everyone has started the semester already kind of tired. But I don't know that there's really a solution for that, I mean, I took a two week vacation with my family this summer and we went sailing kind of leave, work behind, disconnect, unplug. And I know some of my colleagues had the opportunity to do that as well, but I, I do know that some of them didn't, that some of them really work all summer. I think that it shows, you know, I think we're all tired starting the fall, which puts us in a hard position.

Julia Winter (14:09):
How are you students? Are they patient with you? Are they supportive of the work you've done. You hear all the negatives about the cheating and all of that. I sort of want to try to find that positive.

Brittland DeKorver (14:23):
I think the students are extremely gracious and patient, and even sometimes when I've heard them complaining about different things, they'll say things like, Oh, you know, my such and such professor cannot work the virtual meeting software. And then they're like, but I know they're trying, so they'll give a complaint, but then they'll like try and smooth it over like it's okay, I can understand why it is the way it is. So I think they're hanging in there and they're trying to make the best of the situation too.

Julia Winter (14:50):
Yeah, I have to feel for them, because a lot of these are freshmen and they gave up their senior year in high school and my heart breaks for a lot of them who were in sports and didn't get to do prom and all the things that go with the senior year in high school, because I was a high school teacher for 20 years, I understand seniors. So I actually think about those freshmen and I have a lot of empathy for them. They didn't plan on 2020 being 2020, you know? So, and I'm going to segue here. How are you doing? You are a mom of four young boys with working husband and I'm assuming your youngsters are home for education.

Brittland DeKorver (15:33):
Yes. Yep. They are doing school at home as well. It is a juggling act of like, who's on right now? My partner, Kyle stays home on the mornings that I teach. So I have two boys in first grade and so they're the ones really who need the most help because a first grader is not really capable of, you know, navigating zoom meeting or figuring out how to upload an assignment. They have about, I think four hours of direct instruction a day. And then in the afternoons they kind of run wild. I don't know what we're going to do when it gets colder out. Cause they, you know, they go outside and they ride bikes or climb trees. And then, um, that's when I can count on some quiet time to get some work done. And then again, after they go to bed, then I can sit down at my desk. And I think my students, they feel bad about asking me for meetings in the evening or emailing me late at night. And I'm like, nope, that's really when I'm available the most. So keep them coming after 7:00 PM. That's when I get to sit down and really work uninterrupted.

Julia Winter (16:26):
So are you boys at all in person?

Brittland DeKorver (16:28):

Julia Winter (16:29):
Okay. I know there are some places, little kids are 50/50 time and things like that. I just didn't know. We're in different parts of Michigan right now. I see the school buses going down the road where I am in Northern Michigan. So I've, but I didn't know what the situation is with the elementary schools where you live.

Brittland DeKorver (16:47):
Yeah. Our district said that they could do either all in person or all online from my understanding that they didn't really have a lot of capacity to implement a lot of the safety recommendations and that they were hoping that some people would choose online just to reduce capacity in classrooms, the physical classrooms. Because my job is so flexible and I knew that we could manage keeping them home, I just decided it would be better to keep them home.

Julia Winter (17:12):
It's neat they get to go outside and play in the afternoon. You know, I grew up in the sixties, we played outside a lot and that's non-structured and things like that. I always look for some silver lining in all of this. We've gone from the Facebook group to being a new professor and being a mom. Any like last things in this conversation? Give me a little tidbit of your lessons over the last six months.

Brittland DeKorver (17:39):
I think that the thing that I take the most encouragement from is seeing how supportive everybody is not only in my kids' school environment, but in the colleagues that I have at grand Valley and in the Facebook group, people really want to just support each other and lift each other up. And then there's also always that constant, like reminder to support our students as well. And I see that thread come up a lot in the Facebook group. I appreciate that when people are making these decisions, I see them explicitly saying, you know, what's going to be gentlest on the people around us? The other thing that I just try to remind myself is not to think about making it through to the end of the semester or to the end of the pandemic, but just the end of today, all I have to worry about is making it through today and then everything else I can worry about later.

Julia Winter (18:24):
That's a great note to end on. I want to thank professor Brittland DeKorver of Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan for your time, your energy, your effort. Thanks a lot for being with us today.

Brittland DeKorver (18:37):
Thank you very much for having me. It was a pleasure.

Outro (18:41):
Thank you for listening to ideas that matter. Is there a guest you want to hear on the show? Send us your opinion by being a part of our growing community and join the discussion by following us @LearnAlchemie on Instagram and Twitter. This podcast was created and published by Alchemie, edited by Liz Gross, produced by Typhany Jones and narrated by Gianna Manchester.


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