Returning to the Classroom after 6 Quarters of Zoom University

Submitted by Diana Knight on
Prof. Colleen Craig works with students in the Chemistry Study Center, May 2022. Photo by Dennis Wise | University Photography

Spring 2020 was the first full quarter of what was quickly dubbed “Zoom University.” As we remember all too well, schools and businesses were closed to fight the COVID-19 virus.

Ashley Dostie, a doctoral candidate in the research group of Assistant Professor Ashleigh Theberge, was assigned as a teaching assistant to two courses that quarter—Principles of Chemistry III (CHEM 221) and Meso and Microfluidics in Chemical Analysis (CHEM 425/525). Principles of Chemistry III “can be a challenging course for Chemistry TAs as it requires that they review the complete range of topics in biochemistry, from biomolecular structure to physiological processes,” noted Teaching Professor Deborah Wiegand. Dostie’s area of research is analytical chemistry but fortunately, she mastered the complete range of biochemistry topics required for this course as a TA for it in past years. Dostie’s extraordinary ability to assess student needs and respond with the right mix of support and challenge was paramount to guiding students through the complex biochemistry material after they completed only one quarter of organic chemistry, especially during a quarter as disorienting as Spring 2020. Dostie’s peer TAs also benefited from Dostie’s leadership as she shared “strategies for assisting students in effectively studying the material and for helping students see the relevance of the material to their future in the healthcare field,” added Wiegand.

For CHEM 425/525, Dostie attended several workshops to help Assistant Professor Ashleigh Theberge convert the course to an online format. As a grader, Dostie was not required to attend class. However, she logged in to assist Theberge with active learning components and technical issues on Zoom. Adapting a class for a new teaching platform was not the only accommodations required last spring. Theberge and Dostie also worked with the students to accommodate individual circumstances during this challenging quarter.

In Autumn 2021, the University of Washington welcomed staff, faculty, and students back to campus for in-person work and classes. Although students and faculty alike are grateful to be back on site, returning to in-person instruction was a challenge, and certainly not a return to normal.

Mercie Hodges, a second-year graduate student, had the incredibly difficult job as a TA for Organic Chemistry (CHEM 241) of running a laboratory course for students who had never taken a college lab in-person. Last year’s CHEM 241 students had all completed the prerequisites remotely. Kaitlyn Pitts, who is on track to graduate in Spring 2024 with a B.S. in Biochemistry and a B.A. in Dance, was in Hodges’ lab section and observed in the lab that Hodges “was being asked questions from different people every time she took a step but…she never showed signs of frustration, answered all concerns calmly and respectfully, and constantly encouraged and validated all of us.”

In the context of how taxing the pandemic has been for so many, Tatum Frey, a senior studying biochemistry, recalled that Hodges “encouraged students to take care of themselves in and out of the lab,” and Pitts commented that Hodges provided mental health resources and “was very open about her own mental health.” For Pitts, Hodges’ encouragement and validation “made me feel like I had what it takes to become involved in the field of chemistry.”

“Returning to campus this year brought along all the nerves of interacting with my peers in person,” revealed Noe Vargas, who will graduate in June 2023 with a B.S. in Physiology. Fortunately for Vargas, first-year graduate student Sahiti Shankar was the TA in Vargas’ quiz section for Organic Chemistry (CHEM 237) in autumn 2021. “With Sahiti, I was able to break through this shell almost instantly. Her personality was inviting and relatable. I was actually excited to come to class and participate.”

Another student in Shankar’s quiz section, who asked to remain anonymous, also appreciated Shankar’s guidance. “Not only did she go above and beyond with her dedication to enhancing our learning, but she advised us on overarching challenges in life… She showed empathy and care for our success like no other TA had.”

Professor Champak Chatterjee saw the “the largest honors organic chemistry class we have had in many years” with 74 students enrolled in CHEM 335. Second-year graduate student Madeline Currie and first-year graduate student Lars McLaughlin who served as TAs “held extra office hours to help the wide-range of students enrolled in 335 this year,” reported Chatterjee. “There are more students with different levels of mastery in chemistry than in any previous year,” and Currie created “additional content corresponding to two different levels of ability” to accommodate all 74 students.

Teaching assistants and teaching associates, who themselves were navigating challenges in making progress in their studies and careers, worked diligently to support undergraduate students. TAs like Devin Rollins provided handwritten notes on difficult class materials and provided extra practice problems for his organic chemistry students in CHEM 237 like Renelle Christensen, a junior studying biology and physiology. “He also would consistently exhibit empathy towards our struggles and would tell us about his own struggles that he faced, creating a compassionate and comforting environment in the classroom,” Christensen shared.

Dylan Rogers, a TA for CHEM 416/516, provided “tailored and useful feedback to students” studying transition metals according to Professor Brandi Cossairt. “My primary expectation for Dylan was to grade quizzes and problem sets. He went way above and beyond the call of duty in his feedback to students and really tailored his help to maximize student learning.”

Like 2020, 2021 may have been unprecedented, but the students, postdocs, staff, and faculty in the Department of Chemistry demonstrated repeatedly their care for one another and embodied the UW’s spirit that “Together We Will.”

Note: Ashley Dostie, Mercie Hodges, Sahiti Shankar, Madeline Currie, Devin Rollins, and Dylan Rogers were all recognized by the Department of Chemistry with Outstanding TA Awards funded by the Benton Seymour Rabinovitch Endowed Fellowship. Thank you to the late Prof. Rabinovitch and Rabinovitch family, and to our alumni and friends who generously contributed to the Rabinovitch Fellowship to fund these awards. If you have questions about giving to the University of Washington or how you can support students in the Department of Chemistry, please contact Diana Knight, advancement & communications manager.