By Alexa Dumas
Sitting in a classroom, listening to a lecture and having all classes in-person was what students used to expect from a standard semester at SUNY Plattsburgh. The outbreak of COVID-19 has dramatically changed the ways classes are being taught.
Most are online, but the in-person classes call for mandatory face coverings, the cleaning of desks, using hand sanitizer and workspaces six feet away from other students. As this is the new normal on campus, the Environmental Science department is holding its courses outside the classroom.
“We’re feeling lucky that we can still do that, and can even be in person and be outside,” Colin Fuss, assistant professor of environmental science said. “I haven’t really had to alter the plans for the class.”Because the curriculum relates to the environment and being outside to conduct field studies, most of the classes have stayed the same, except to adhere to the social distancing guidelines and mask policies.
“It’s definitely easier to adhere to social distancing and other safety guidelines for outdoor classes,” senior environmental science major Jennifer Stanton said. “It’s been very refreshing for this semester to start heavily outdoors.”
Environmental science courses are smaller and more specialized this semester. Six of them are being held face-to-face. Freshwater Ecology, Water Quality Modeling, Forest Ecology and Management, Wildlife Ecology and Management, Agriculture in the Environment and Wetland Ecology are all being held in-person this semester and are taught primarily outside, besides the lectures, which are held in-person.
“Everyone seems to be more sanitary,” junior environmental science major Jacob LeDuc said. “Throughout the day, people have been using hand sanitizer many times.”
A change the department has implemented this semester is that students can no longer share lab tools and equipment.
“It’s definitely been a lot more hands-on,” environmental science student Abigail Beckman said. “It’s been a lot easier to talk to a teacher directly, which has been really nice.”
Despite the social distancing guidelines, students like Beckman have said that being outside and still being able to learn is beneficial to the curriculum.
“I think students are more comfortable asking questions or giving thoughts than they might be in the classroom,” Fuss said. “The environment is more relaxed.”
Not only have the professors noticed a difference in learning styles, but so have the students.
“My favorite part about the classes is the hands-on experience,” LeDuc said. “We have done so many cool and fascinating things this semester that I feel are preparing us for our future careers.”
Beckman, LeDuc and Stanton are all currently taking the water quality modeling class with Fuss.
“We’ve done a couple of field trips so far,” Fuss said. “Both of which were focused on measurements of water quality.”
The main goal of the class is to research how nutrients carry from various agricultural fields to streams and rivers that then feed into Lake Champlain.
Some of the trips have included researching nutrients found in cornfield water run-off and drainage pipes at a local agricultural site. The students also worked closely with scientists from the Miner Institute to learn more about the process.
The class has recently traveled to the Little Chazy River to test the water flow with various measurements and to determine possible pollutants in the water.
“Accurate measurements are important in order to not only know how much water is moving in a river but also a way to figure out how much of a particular nutrient or pollutant is moving with that water,” Fuss said.
Even though the department is still able to conduct class outside of the classroom, the department is still facing a few challenges.
“Going into the semester, we were a little concerned about how field trips would work,” Fuss said.
Because these classes revolve around the environment, not being able to get to locations for studies would have been a large issue.
“In past semesters, if we went on a field trip and used the school van as transportation, the vans would be filled to almost full capacity,” LeDuc said.
Due to social distancing, only three students are allowed to ride in one vehicle at a time.
“[We have] even fewer… students in the van than technically allowed, just to be on the extra safe side,” Fuss said.
The department has used the guidelines provided by SUNY Plattsburgh to ensure students’ health and safety while on field trips.
“I could see a lot more classes, regardless of program, being held outside to make it easier to adhere to safety guidelines and regulations,” Stanton said.
Some classes can be seen congregating outside their respective classrooms to take advantage of the scenery around campus.
“Being outside is definitely an advantage as far as safety,” Beckman said. “So, it definitely gives you a better chance of having class, even if other classes are canceled like it’s safer to be outside.”
The social distancing regulations and mask guidelines have not deterred some students’ love for nature, exploring and being outside.
“I love being able to be outside,” Beckman said. “I love how hands-on it is. I think it is easier to learn when you are actually doing what you are being taught.”
Not only have the students felt this way, but so have professors like Fuss.
“I think part of a good education is that they really need to get out and see how things work with real field measurements. You can really notice more stuff around you when you are outside doing something. Luckily, we have been able to do that.”
COVID-19 has changed the way education is delivered to students and may influence the future of learning as we know it. Even with the pandemic, students are still enjoying learning, and finding a place of peace called the great outdoors.