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SRJC struggles to replicate hands-on science, theater courses online

Teachers have worked hard to adapt many of Santa Rosa Junior College’s most coveted courses in a meaningful way, but some worry students are not getting a worthwhile experience.|

The spring semester at Santa Rosa Junior College promised a return to science lab classes for Tallulah Kuula, and as a biology student she was excited for specialized work in her major.

By now her zoology class would be far along its semester journey with dissections, exploring different adaptations from simple organisms and primitive creatures to advanced land mammals.

Instead, Kuula, 20, spends her school hours isolated on the back deck of her family's home in Sebastopol, which falls short of the hive-mind environment of a college classroom where it's easier to stay focused, she said.

Since the threat of the coronavirus forced the junior college to close its campus in mid-March, her botany class was reduced to busywork and quizzes, and zoology mostly involves video lectures and studying anatomy through photographs.

Science lab and the performing arts courses, offerings that rely on vital, hands-on instruction, are among those that have been difficult to replicate in the switch to distance learning. Faculty members have worked hard to adapt these classes in a significant way, but some are disheartened by the limitations of a virtual classroom. They are worried that over 8,300 of SRJC's 22,000 students enrolled in labs will get pushed forward with a compromised foundation.

'We really care a lot about our students and what they learn and what kind of experience we're offering them,' biology professor Steven Kessler said. 'It's just been a challenge these last six, seven weeks to make it as meaningful as we're comfortable with.'

Kuula commended her teachers for the way they have adapted, and their openness to students' suggestions for collaborative online classes. It just hasn't been the finish to her tenure at SRJC she had hoped for.

'It sucks,' said Kuula, who is transferring to UC Davis in the fall. 'That was the coolest part of lab, getting to put what you've been learning all semester out there and see it working in the animal you're looking at. Now I just talk to myself in my head, and it's not that exciting.'

Over 2,600 courses were disrupted when the junior college suspended classroom instruction and closed its campuses March 12 as more coronavirus cases were emerging in the community. After a frantic two-week break to try and salvage each course, 92 were canceled.

Most were in vocational skills like welding, culinary arts or automotive technology, said college spokeswoman Erin Bricker. Although, another 43 courses were paused until face-to-face classes could resume in 2021, primarily in the emergency services and health science fields, she said.

For Shawn Brumbaugh, a biology professor who teaches Kuula's zoology class, 'the last few months have been the most difficult time' in 15 years of teaching at the college, he said.

The sudden switch to a virtual setting forced him to scrap signature lessons his classes are built around, and instead embrace tedious, paper studies to teach topics that fall short without a hands-on concept.

Some students will be fine, Brumbaugh said, but others need the college campus environment to better develop crucial life skills. He wrestles with the notion higher education during the pandemic is forcing teachers to advance students before they're ready.

'I think that's our biggest concern,' Brumbaugh said. 'Are they getting what they need to be successful in the next stage, the next round of courses?'

Continuing with remote teaching in the fall semester is depressing, said Steven Kessler, a fellow biology professor. Live lectures on Zoom are sluggish and awkward, and it's almost impossible for him to pick up on his students' body language or any physical cues to tell if they're grasping the material.

Kessler said his microbiology students this spring are doing a fraction of the analytical work they would in a typical classroom setting, and he has serious concerns about the long-term academic loss for students.

For over 200 SRJC theater students, who take courses on acting or stage management, closing the campus meant more than just an academic loss.

California's ban on large gatherings forced an indefinite postponement of 'The Wedding Singer,' a student-led musical that would have debuted at the newly renovated Burbank Auditorium this spring.

Losing it just before students were set to start onstage rehearsals has 'introduced so many unknowns,' said Claire Grodrian, 19, a theater student and cast member.

Some of Grodrian's peers are about to transfer to four-year universities, and their months of training for this production will end without a public showcase, or valuable stage experience they could build on. Others are considering taking time off from school until theaters are safe to reopen.

A few are so disheartened they are debating a new career altogether, she said.

'We spent so much of our time with each other building a community and really strong bonds going through it together,' Grodrian said. 'The idea of it being different or the dynamic changing, it's sad. It can get you down.'

Theater faculty have found ways to adapt courses, like encouraging monologues in the absence of collaborative scene work, and invited industry experts to conduct master classes.

A multidepartment campaign to string individual video recordings of scenes from 'The Wedding Singer' into one synchronous video are underway, said Leslie McCauley, chair of the theater and fashion department. Spring showcases for classes are still moving forward, using a similar video submission format.

But for the world of performing arts, it's impossible to replicate the energy exchanges between fellow actors, as well as the audience, which are the lifeblood of the medium.

'We're preparing students for the future that is the theater we know,' McCauley said. 'They're going to be the next generation of theater-makers. We're giving them as many performing skills as we can.'

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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