Talking Real Science with Wendy Riggs

This episode of Share Science features Wendy Riggs, MS, an associate professor of biology at the College of the Redwoods in California. Wendy presented a webinar with us earlier this year on how to adapt classrooms to an online environment, and her enthusiasm and passion for education and science is what brought her here today as a guest.

Where did you grow up and how did your youth influence your path and passion towards science?

I grew up in southern Oregon, east of the Cascades, so I was in a rural community and I pretty much lived outside. We used to go camping all the time, fishing all the time. I can vividly remember hiking around with my dad, and he would roll logs over so we could see what was underneath. We were definitely outdoors a lot, and I quickly realized that this is super interesting and a passion of mine.

“I actually knew I wanted to be a teacher before I knew I wanted to be a scientist.”

In my freshman year in college, I thought I was going to teach little kids, which would’ve been really fun, but I took a biology course and thought, “Nope, I’ve got to teach biology and spend some time actually teaching at the high school level before moving to the college level.” I definitely had a lot of outdoor experiences that made me want to learn more about how things work.

“It’s just really fun to have the background and the experience to be able to look at something and then go, how does that happen? How does it do that? To be able to look it up and figure it out is really fun.”

Where did you study to get there and why did you choose education specifically?

When I was a junior in high school, my dad and I traveled. We visited Humboldt State University in Northern California and it was just instant. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to live here.” We’re right on the ocean. We’re in the middle of the redwoods. It’s a really amazing place, so I targeted the college itself because of where it’s located.

It also had a really strong marine biology program, and that was something that I was interested in, although I decided to spend my first semester thinking I was going to be in elementary education. Like I said, that first biology class, I still remember that professor and just how awesome she was at explaining things and how fascinated I was at being able to explain what was happening and being able to understand it, so I pretty much knew that education was the thing that I wanted to do.

Who was or is the greatest influence on your career?

It’s so hard to say. Definitely that first biology professor. I also had an awesome biology instructor in high school who was just fired up. He used to take us out into the canals behind our high school in the fall. They would stop filling the canals with water, and we’d go out there and see all the critters that had sadly lost their water, so they weren’t going to make it, but it was really fun to go see all the diversity that was out there.

“I have definitely had some amazing biology instructors. I have to say that as a professional, as a college professor, … the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS) is just full of inspiring, supportive, amazing people who have had a huge impact on my professional development.”

Our connection with that organization started out at face-to-face conferences, but with COVID and things moving online, we’re now using social media to connect. We have town halls and hang out. It just feels like there’s greater access to that part of my professional community than in the past. That’s really, really valuable to me.

What impact did COVID-19 have on you, your teaching style, and your students?

I think about it often because March 2020 in education was unprecedented. None of us had ever experienced anything like that. At the time, I was teaching a face-to-face physiology course and an online general biology course, and I was a part of HAPS leadership as well. When everybody had to transition to remote learning to help students meet learning outcomes in spite of not being face-to-face anymore in classes that weren’t designed to be online, I ended up shifting.

I learned a lot in that experience because my face-to-face students moved online and we were pretty well set up. I flipped my face-to-face classes, so I had a full set of videos. We set up Zoom sessions, but right before we pivoted online, I remember saying to the students, “Hey, this is not a big deal. We’ll meet in Zoom at our normal class times, and we’ll just carry on like normal. It’ll just be a totally normal thing.” It took maybe a day or two of reflection to realize that, “Oh, no. This isn’t going to be normal,” because we all had our kids at home and we had to figure out our jobs, and our schedules totally changed.

“Probably the biggest thing that happened to me was a sudden compassion or empathy for my students.”

That’s changed how I teach, and it’s changed how I build my classes, communicate with my students, and work with them to help them get through their classes. I did end up doing a lot of distance education work and support for faculty on my campus during that time, and that was another big change. I was not sitting on the instructor side as much as the admin side, and I’ve got to say that’s not my favorite place to be. I like being in my classroom better.

How did you adapt your classroom to an online environment and what surprised you the most about that transition?

I already had videos created, so my students already had access to all of my lectures. If I had to create content during this time, it would’ve been a totally different experience for me. Because I already had my content created, I could focus on my students and connect with them. I could make sure that I knew who they were and where they were headed, and that they had what they needed to get through the class. Since spring 2020, I have taught human physiology fully online every semester and I think the transitions to asynchronous lab experiences have gotten better over time.

“It takes time to develop a high quality online class.”

We’ve done a lot of community building. I know who they are and what’s going on in their lives. I see their faces and I can tell when they’re confused. We’ve worked really hard to make sure that we can maintain that community to support the students. They still are doing all the work that they would’ve done face-to-face. They don’t have that social connection and that protected space of the classroom. They have to fit our course into their lives. We have done a really good job of making that happen for them. I like my online classes more now than I did before; they’re more interactive and we have a better community.

How have you been building community in a virtual world with your students and even your fellow faculty members?

I have found the virtual meetings to be really interesting. On the one hand, I’m tired of sitting in my home and doing all my work in my living room. On the other hand, in these virtual meetings, our faces are all the same size and we all show up with the same volume and we raise our hands in order to be able to talk. There’s also this whole conversation that can happen in the chat bar.

“I think that these synchronous video conference opportunities are definitely a place where authentic community can be generated.”

I think before someone’s going to be ready to turn on their video in a synchronous Zoom session or raise their hand and say words, you have to have a relationship with them. That’s the kind of stuff that I spend most of my time focusing on. Yes, we’re talking content, but there’s a lot of cheerleading and support and flexibility and reminders that, “Hey, I’m on your side. What can I do to help? Let’s get in there and make stuff happen.” We have a really robust chat tool that is embedded in our learning management system.

That system is on my phone and I can text my students without having to give them my cell phone number, which is nice. It’s super quick. You can like the things that they say. They can message anyone in the class. They can message as many people in the class as they want. They set up groups. We can do video hangouts. It’s fast, so they know that if they send me a message in this time period, that I’m going to get back to them because I’m on my phone and I can just send them a quick message back.

I spend a lot of time getting to know who they are. I had 70 students this semester and I recognize that it’s a privilege to have small classes. That’s probably my highest priority because once you have the community, then they trust you and you can help them be successful.

When I was first proposing a science class with a lab online around seven years ago, I remember my more experienced colleagues saying, “You can’t do that. Virtual education is virtual. It’s not real. You can’t actually learn and create a community online.” Then I look at my kids who are teenage boys and I’m pretty sure they’re creating some robust community online. We can probably learn from that and count it as real. It’s legit.

Can you comment on your experience with your students and their pandemic fatigue?

In past semesters, it wasn’t explicit, but this semester I just said, “Hey, due dates are “best by” dates.” I learned about this on Twitter. I can’t remember who threw this out there, but I loved that idea. The reason why due dates are “best by” dates is because you get to engage with everybody. You’re on the same page, you have support, and you get to have conversations, which is where a lot of learning happens.

“If things go down, and things are rough, man, do what you got to do.”

I know this is not abnormal, but we had people getting COVID and people with family members who got COVID and kids who had to quarantine. Then there’s all the regular stuff that just happens in life. If you’re flexible with the students and present for them, they don’t get discouraged and they don’t give up. They go, “Okay. I have flexibility here.” They communicate with me really quickly in the chat tool, and I can adjust those due dates, and then they can keep going. You’ve got lots of people on different tracks, but it’s amazing how most of them are like, “I don’t want to be behind. I want to keep up.” They’re not slacking; they’re just dealing with life.

“It’s an honor to be able to be in position to help support them and encourage them to keep going.”

I don’t know what it was, but there was this leveling of experience where we all were in the same boat. I was no longer this person holding deadlines, saying, “This is my class. If you can’t make it happen, then maybe this isn’t the semester for you to make it happen.” We all were on the same page of, “Holy crud, we have no idea what’s happening next and we need to be flexible and supportive of each other.”

The thing that’s amazing is I’m not going back. We’re not going to be in this pandemic forever, but life happens and we can trust our students. We can trust them when they say, “I am trying my hardest, but these things are happening in my life.” I had one student whose dog got shot. He was like, “Game over,” and I was like, “No, not game over, but take the time that you need to handle that and then come back, because you’ve done all this work and we want you to keep going.” He did. He pushed through that because I was there saying, “Yes, that’s not going to be the thing that kicks you off this path, my friend.”

“You look at folks going into education. … They’re committing to do something hard. Classes are hard. Learning is hard. It’s work and you have to create time and space to do it.”

It’s vulnerable because in order to really learn, you have to figure out what you don’t know. You have to try something, get some feedback, and then make these incremental steps forward. It’s a hard thing to do, so to be in a position to support the folks who are making that decision in spite of all of it, it really is an honor to be part of that.

Can you share your experience as a woman in science?

This is a harder question for me. I think it probably reveals, I don’t know, maybe the privilege of not having to be super aware of my reproductive organs in my chosen career. I am and always have been a teacher: that’s what I am here to do and it’s my passion. It’s my joy and I’m not sure if being a woman has had an impact on my life.

“Going into the sciences, I’ve always felt empowered and supported.”

I think the fact that I feel like that’s a privilege is another reason why I see my role as, “Okay. Make sure everybody has that privilege. Make sure everybody feels like those options or those opportunities are available to them.” That’s the other part of it. You have to know your students if you’re going to show up and help open doors for them so that they can get where they want to go.

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