CALS faculty find innovative ways to move hands-on courses online

By Whitney Baxter

Faculty in Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have been finding innovative ways to bring the classroom learning experience to their students, who are now spread across Iowa, the nation and the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. From traveling to and capturing video at various farms to encouraging students to get outside and hunt for weeds, these faculty, as well as their students, are rising to the challenges of these unprecedented times.

Bringing the farm to students

Brad Skaar capturing video with help from his sonSince the announcement came that all Iowa State classes would be moved online for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, Brad Skaar, associate professor in animal science, has been working long hours to virtualize the on-farm experiences for his classes. He’s even gone as far as coming to campus during the early morning hours to record lectures when the buildings are empty.

Two of the courses he’s teaching this semester - Animal Science 101: Working with Animals, and Animal Science 226: Beef Cattle Science - typically involve trips to Iowa State livestock farms, where students gain hands-on experiences caring for and handling livestock. So, with his high school-aged son running the iPad, Skaar has been recording video at the farms, capturing various livestock handling processes.

“Our farm managers have been very accommodating to make arrangements and help in the video taping of the labs,” Skaar said.

With calving season underway, Skaar said one of the things he’ll record for his Animal Science 226 class is how to deliver, process and manage calves. His goal is to make it appear as if class went on as usual, rather than being moved online.

So far, it seems to be working. He has noticed with his online lectures he has more time to explain things and his students have an opportunity to listen to and focus on the lecture, rather than being distracted by other students sitting around them in a traditional classroom setting.

“I think because of all that, they’re doing a better job,” Skaar said. “There are some lessons students are getting more out of because the lessons aren’t limited to the usual 50 minutes allotted for the class period.”

Dan Thomson, chair of the animal science department, said Skaar’s handling of the move to online courses is evident of his dedication to his students.

“Dr. Brad Skaar has been a cornerstone to our Animal Science Department as a teacher,” Dr. Thomson said. “Brad is enthusiastic, brings a great depth of knowledge and cares that students learn. He is out gathering real world video and coming in at 2 or 3 a.m. to record lectures when it is quiet in the building. It is obvious that online or in the classroom, the students can pick up on the qualities of this outstanding educator.”

Sending students on a hunt for weeds

Picture of weed plant submitted by a studentStudents in Robert “Bob” Hartzler’s Agronomy 217: Weed Identification course have been given an excuse to take a break from sitting in front of their computers and get outside.

Hartzler, professor in agronomy, said the purpose of the class is for students to learn to identify weeds, which usually involves going on class field trips. With the switch to online learning, he wanted to find a way for students to learn to identify weeds in person, rather than just looking at weed pictures online. Thus, the idea to send students on a weed hunt was born.

Wherever students are located, they must go on a weed hunt, taking pictures of their findings, identifying them, and submitting the pictures and information electronically. Hartzler will then provide feedback on whether or not the students’ weed identifications are correct.

In addition, Hartzler said he’s considering doing a virtual weed walk to show students how easy it is to find weeds if they know what they’re looking for, especially during this time of year when weeds are just beginning to emerge.

While the weed hunt and the class overall have been going well so far, Hartzler said he will miss the opportunity to share in person with students his passion for weeds.

“I like to show a lot of enthusiasm about weeds and make students think ‘how can someone be so enthusiastic about weeds?’” Hartzler said.

Altering Ag 450 Farm’s methods of operation

Considered a capstone course for students, Agricultural Education and Studies 450: Farm Management & Operation, is typically a very hands-on course.  The anywhere from 40-60 students who enroll in the course each semester are responsible for the plans, records and decisions for buying and selling the Ag 450 Farm’s livestock, crops and equipment.

Students’ responsibilities during the spring semester include making financial and management decisions for the 1,500 finish feeder pigs on the farm, as well as learning how to operate planting equipment and planting approximately 850 acres of corn and soybeans.

Skyler Rinker, assistant teaching professor in agricultural education and studies, instructs the course, alongside Ag 450 Farm manager Jacob Parr. The two have been working on ways to bring the on-farm experience to students via computer or provide them with learning opportunities wherever the students are located. For on-farms tasks students are not able to complete in their absence, such as planting this year’s crop, Rinker and Parr have taken those on, with the help of the farm’s student employees, Josh Lieb and Ben Ostendorf, both seniors in agricultural studies.

“We’re trying to stick to the schedule so even if the students are not at the farm, they can still make management decisions,” Rinker said. “We’re trying to leave as many responsibilities as we can in the students’ hands.”

“To Skyler and Jacob’s credit, they have been very open to students’ ideas for how to compromise on hands-on experiences,” said Emily Campbell, senior in agricultural studies and one of the students in the class. “They both understand this is not an ideal learning situation for us, just as we can recognize that this makes it difficult for them to do their own jobs. That has probably been the element of the online class that has been most pleasantly surprising to me.”

The class conducts weekly business meetings electronically so students can share where they’re at with projects they’ve been assigned and Rinker and Parr can provide updates of what is going on at the farm. Communication also takes place via discussion boards on Canvas.

Campbell said while the move to all online courses came as a disappointment to her and other students, she understands the importance of social distancing.

“I think we are all a little sad to admit that the week before spring break was the last time all of us will be together at one time, and we won’t be able to host any of the traditional class socials or outings before most of us graduate,” she said. “But, to me, that is a testament to just how important the 450 course is to students. The relationships we build with our instructors and classmates in the course are real. We are all friends. We cheer each other on. Having college juniors and seniors who miss going to class and miss seeing their classmates and instructors is something worth recognizing.”