Teaching in the time of COVID-19

Transforming hands-on, sensory-intensive classes for a virtual environment


t the beginning of March, it was business as usual at Oregon State University. Students and faculty were finishing up winter term and preparing for spring break. Commencement plans were, well, commencing. Spring term classes had been selected, and professors, instructors, and teaching assistants across campus were setting the stage for finals week and preparing for a new term.

Everything was normal. Until it wasn’t.

In a matter of two weeks, OSU faculty shifted their mindsets about how to fulfill a critical function of our land-grant missionteaching.

And in the College of Agricultural Sciences, where hands-on instruction is integral to so much of the curriculum, the idea of moving those classes to a virtual environment presented a unique challenge—one that would require unprecedented creativity and tenacity to achieve.

This is the story of how three classespreviously reliant upon in-person, hands-on experiencesrose to the challenge and evolved under quarantine.

Virtual Wine Tasting

When Associate Professor and Enology Extension Specialist James Osborne learned he would have to take his five-credit Wine Production, Analysis and Sensory Evaluations class online, he must have wondered how his students could possibly taste wine together in a virtual environment.

Adapting a course that relies on the sensory evaluation of wines to an online format in a matter of two weeks seemed impossible.

But for Osborne, cancelling the class was not an option.

It is so important that students are able to taste the wine, but it’s just as important that they taste it together. We learn so much from hearing how other people describe their unique sensory experience of the wine.

“Not only is this class required for graduation, it is the culmination of years of theoretical study,” Osborne explained. “It’s where students get to apply all the organic chemistry, biochemistry, and microbiology they have learned to the practical process of winemaking. I wasn’t about to take that off the table for my students.”

In order to adapt, he would have to step out of the traditional structure of the class and reimagine how it might work virtually.

As a required course, it serves as a capstone-style class and is made up of mainly seniors—many of whom are non-traditional or post-baccalaureate students. A key objective of the course is for students to gain experience in evaluating and describing wines as they would in a winery setting, where decisions are often made based solely on the winemaker’s palate.

Ideally, students interact with one another: tasting wines together, learning from each other’s experiences, conducting lab work and getting hands-on experience. Over the course of the term, students typically participate in a number of sensory exercises, tasting 30+ different wines, evaluating wine aroma, flavor, and texture profiles and learning how to recognize faults, flaws, and other qualities in a wine.

Osborne knew he couldn’t ask his students to go out and buy 30+ bottles of wine. Even if they were available to every one of his students across three states, the cost would be prohibitive. So, necessity being the mother of invention, Osborne made sure that all 18 of his students had a sample of the 33 different wines.

To achieve this, Osbourne carefully filled 594 vials with 20 milliliters of wine, labeled them, then packaged and shipped them to each student in the class.

“It is so important that students are able to taste the wine, but it’s just as important that they taste it together,” Osborne added. “We learn so much from hearing how other people describe their unique sensory experience of the wine.”

So, with the wine shipped, the next question was how to taste it together without actually being together.

The students came together via Zoom and were able to share their personal sensory evaluation of the different wines and discuss their opinions of the wines to the larger class.

“We’re just making this up as we go, trying to learn from what others are doing.”

While Osborne still believes the in-person experience is ideal, particularly for the lab work and the practical winemaking (which is not a part of the online course), he does recognize some unintended additional value the structure might provide.

Noting that many commercial wineries have started to introduce virtual wine tastings to their wine club members, Osborne noted, “We may have inadvertently found some added value in giving students the opportunity to share their tasting experience online, as they may very well do the same in their future careers.”

Asked if he can imagine this course moving online in some capacity in the future, when not required by social distancing protocols, Osborne paused.

“Maybe. I can see the sensory evaluation piece as a one-credit E-Campus class open to all students. But I’d rather see my students in real life, in the lab, watching all their reactions and interactions.”

Sensory classes like this one are rooted in the experience of the human senses, which is difficult to emulate online. But Osborne is setting out to show that with enough ingenuity, virtual winetasting has some worthwhile potential.

The irony of finding more hands-on opportunities in a virtual food preservation class

Associate Professor of Food Safety Systems, Joy Waite-Cusic originally planned to facilitate a new graduate-level class in food preservation that would engage with 30+ volunteers through Lane County Extension’s Master Food Preserver Program coordinated by Nellie Oehler.

The goal of the class was to learn how to critically evaluate food preservation recipes and performance, while also teaching food safety. While planning the class, prior to COVID-19, the hope was to use insights from it as an opportunity to develop new Extension publication materials.

“Normally, we’d be in one room,” Waite-Cusic said. “Six graduate students would join 30 volunteers in order to learn about food science while engaging with community members. Now there are just the students, isolated in their homes, with varied kitchen capabilities.”

In addition to the community engagement the course normally provides, the County Extension programs also have the food preservation equipment and the coordinators supply all of the ingredients. Recognizing that the students in their homes didn’t have access to that same equipment, the first challenge was to figure out how to get those supplies to them.

“I basically did doorbell dash-and-runs all over Corvallis,” Waite-Cusic explained. “Dropping off canning equipment and other materials. One student is in Utah, so we had to mail that one. But eventually they all got what they needed and we were able to at least start with the same equipment, if in different places.”

The irony of removing the volunteers from the class by moving it online, was that it actually required the students to be more hands-on with the food preservation process. Instead of dividing into groups and sharing duties, each student had to complete every step. And because availability of different ingredients changes, they are doing slightly different experiments with different foods each week.

To accommodate that effort, Waite-Cusic introduced a full-day lab every Monday with several check-ins throughout the day. At the end of the day, students submit photos of their projects which she provides comments on and shares with the class over Zoom for discussion.

“It’s really maximizing the diversity of what we do in any given week,” she said. “we are all learning about different foods together.”

The hands-on experience in home environments more closely resembles how a community member may preserve foods, so it could be that those Extension materials originally planned could become even more useful following this “virtual” class experiment.

“I still prefer being in class, face-to-face in many ways,” Waite-Cusic added. “But I’ve been struck by the opportunity this social isolation has provided in rethinking how we deliver this class and how we can make materials more accessible to the public.”

How to build a farm in an apartment

James Cassidy has run OSU’s student farm for 20 years, where he maintains a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that has grown to 40 subscribers annually. One way the CSA farm is maintained is through his Horticulture 260 class, “Organic Farming and Gardening.”

“It’s one of the entry points for students exploring soils and gardening,” Cassidy said. “It’s where many students get their first hands-on experience planting and growing food while learning about the science of soil health and crop production.”

An actual rock star, having enjoyed celebrity status with his band Information Society since the 1980s, Cassidy’s class has become quite popular. Driven by both the content and his personality, the class typically attracts upwards of 75 students. Since COVID-19 moved all classes online, enrollment for Spring term was closer to 50.

James Cassidy, seated here in OSU’s converted electric tractor, was the bass guitarist in Information Society, which earned a platinum record in 1988. Today, in addition to playing an 1868 calf-skin banjo, Cassidy teaches soil science at OSU and advises its Organic Growers Club.

Because the class serves as both an educational opportunity and a practical benefit to the maintenance of the student farm, Cassidy had the dual challenge of adapting the class to an online format, while also maintaining the farm without the students there to help.

This meant pivoting from large numbers of students to working with six key professionals willing to volunteer. It was important to Cassidy that the farm continue to operate, not only to maintain its legacy for future students, but to also serve a growing community of members and local small farmers that have partnered with the program to help it thrive over the years.

However, even with the small farm largely under control, students in his HORT 260 class were still in need of a place to grow foods on their own.

While the lecture portions of the class translated fairly well to a video format with a combination of recorded labs and live Zoom discussions and presentations, tackling the issue of how to get 50 students across multiple states living in every conceivable housing environment to grow food became a source of real ingenuity.

“It’s actually been quite sweet to see the students navigate this challenge,” Cassidy said. “Some of them are growing in pots in their apartments, others are reconnecting with relatives and working in their grandmother’s garden for the first time—making this much more of a family experience. What they are growing and how they grow it is really fascinating and I think brings some added value to the class that I hadn’t anticipated.”

The future of the class and the future of the student farm remain closely intertwined. Cassidy has big visions for the future of the CSA program, and for good reason. It can improve people’s understanding of how food is grown and help highlight the fact that other College programs like Beaver Classic Cheese and Beaver Classic Honey are also 100% student-led.

The farm itself is entirely self-funded through the sale of fruit and vegetables. In addition, the farm accepts donations and sells t-shirts on its Soil Forward website to augment that support (soilforward.org). 

Cassidy was unambiguously enthusiastic and optimistic about the future. Recalling a phrase he once heard:

“When you press pause on a machine, it stops. When you press pause on a human, it goes.”

Judging by the excitement of his class and the new online materials, the future of OSU’s student farm and the future crop and soil science curriculum is in good hands.

By Heidi Happonen

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