Challenges of science education in a COVID world
Amal Amanda Issa, CASE 2-Year College Director
When colleges first started to shut down in early spring, like everything else, classes were transitioned online. Fortunately, during an uncertain and overwhelming transformation of instruction, California’s Community Colleges already utilized a number of tools to support online learning. Platforms such as Canvas, similar to that of Google Classrooms, already housed instructor’s coursework, materials, and communication.
For disciplines within humanities and the like, the transition, although undesirable, was doable, holding classes by zoom and other forms of video conferencing. However, courses in the sciences and career technical education did not experience as seamless a transition. Almost immediately the concern around “hard to convert” courses was at the center and a focus of the Chancellor’s Office. Without laboratory spaces to work in, materials, and workshops, many courses had to be cancelled, causing disruption in student learning and progression in goal attainment. Students in need of specific courses to complete a degree or transfer to a bachelor’s-attainting institution were unable to complete requirements, setting them back in their advancement towards education and career goals.
As we look ahead into the next school year, how will we ensure quality learning in laboratory and skills-based courses? How will we work to keep the learning gap from reaching irreparable growth, and how will we provide all the necessary learning opportunities for students to complete career training, transfes, or other goals?
The community college system partnered with Labster  to provide online laboratory experiences for students. These simulations are designed to mirror the protocols of typical experiments completed in college-level lab courses. In a time where students are unable to physically enter lab spaces to conduct their work, this virtual tool substitutes for that need. But can a virtual experience - not virtual reality - really prepare students for further education and careers in the sciences? How can an online tool really train a student the delicate use of a pipette or the nuances of contamination that may not be coded into the virtual laboratory? Can virtual platforms be considered “hands-on” learning?  It can provide context and simulations of real work techniques, but can it thoroughly replace that of in-person lab experiences? We must consider that in the field - the real world - science can not exist solely in a virtual space.
We face an issue of ensuring quality experiences and learning in the sciences when learning is entirely online. This is not to argue for a return to in-person instruction, but rather consideration for the future because the experience of science learning has significantly decreased during this pandemic - and science is the thing that will solve the global issue.
As we recover from a whirlwind of a year, we are faced with planning for an overwhelming uncertain return to school. Every day there are new challenges and considerations. Sometimes planning for the future seems impossible and unrealistic because we are not returning to business as usual. For the foreseeable future, California’s Community Colleges will remain entirely online with plans to support laboratory and career training courses evolving. It is critical that we support the growth and career goals of the millions of students our institutions serve as we approach another year of distance learning.
Amal Amanda Issa is a Regional Coordinator with California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and adjunct faculty with Merritt College. She’s designed professional development to support community college faculty in designing and facilitation of instruction in dual enrollment. She’s taught secondary physical and biological sciences as well as dual enrollment medical assisting courses. Amanda is CASE’s 2 year college director.