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Online, In-Person, or in Between: La Sierra University Students Move Ahead in Difficult Times

Associate Biology Professor Arturo Diaz teaches SEA-GENES on campus in a physically-distanced class. Left to right William Van Iderstein, Vivianna Williams, Elizabeth Chau, Madyllyne Vaca, Melissa Acevedo, and Dr. Arturo Diaz. (Photo: Natan Vigna)

Associate biology professor Arturo Diaz teaches SEA-GENES on campus in a physically-distanced class. (Left to right William Van Iderstein, Vivianna Williams, Elizabeth Chau, Madyllyne Vaca, Melissa Acevedo, and Dr. Arturo Diaz) Photo by Natan Vigna

Her facemask is sometimes uncomfortable and six-foot distancing from classmates less than ideal, but pre-veterinary medicine student Madyllyne Vaca appreciates being able to conduct biology research on campus at La Sierra University in Riverside, California.

“It was a little strange at first with all the safety precautions, but I don’t feel as though my health is being threatened at all and I still get to enjoy the full experience of doing work in lab,” the sophomore said. “The physical procedures are very important to the lab, and I would not be learning as much if it were all online.” Vaca participates in her other La Sierra classes virtually from her home in Redlands.

In August, following California’s issuance of operational guidelines for higher education during the current COVID-19 pandemic, La Sierra announced its plan to keep classes and functions primarily online for fall quarter and to provide a 10 percent tuition subsidy. Limited exceptions were granted for certain science labs and art studio classes that welcomed small numbers of students to physically-distanced instruction this fall under health and safety measures.

In most cases, the on-campus classes utilize a “HyFlex” model with activities and instruction offered synchronously in person and online via cameras and video conferencing so that students may choose which method of delivery works best for them. The excepted fall classes marked the first time since March that instruction was held on site at the university.

On-campus fall classes include painting, drawing, ceramics, photography, fitness, film editing, certain music classes, chemistry and SEA-GENES, a virus research biology lab in which Vaca is participating. It builds on sophomore students’ initial work in a SEA-PHAGES class during their freshman year.

The SEA-GENES lab class involves 15 students split between two lab rooms in Price Science Complex to allow for physical distancing of six feet. Students are required to wear face masks and goggles while in the labs, and a system has been implemented to avoid the sharing of lab supplies. Vaca and her classmates during the third week of October were working on inserting bacteriophage genes into Escherichia coli cells to determine their function once they are expressed by the bacteria. The students were not conducting any research directly related to the COVID-19 virus, she said.

“The greatest challenge has been splitting the students into two different rooms to ensure that everyone is at least six feet apart,” said Arturo Diaz, associate biology professor. He teaches the simultaneously-occurring two-room lab class utilizing a camera in one of the rooms to share his PowerPoint presentations in both and uses a microphone so that both classes can hear him.

“Despite the restrictions, the students have done an amazing job, they are focused and come prepared to the lab. It’s remarkable that they will accomplish more than we predicted,” he said.

Art+Design guest artist Marie Mingoia gives an outdoor demonstration in September on how to hand build pottery with slabs, or sheets of clay. (Photo: courtesy of Brittany Neimeth)

Art+Design guest artist Marie Mingoia gives an outdoor demonstration in September on how to hand build pottery with slabs, or sheets of clay. Photo courtesy of Brittany Neimeth

Following the “HyFlex” Model

In the Art+Design department, four classes are being delivered via Zoom, and four others are being offered in the HyFlex method with limited studio access, said Art+Design Chair Terrill Thomas. “All of us have been isolated for so long, that simply being allowed to come to campus, even under tight restrictions, connects us to a space we all consider home,” he said.

During the summer the department suspended its normal art and social activities in keeping with health and safety best practices. To kick off fall quarter, the department invited author and illustrator Aileen Leijten to present a Zoom FAM Night event, about what it was like to write and publish her illustrated book, “Lint Boy.”

“What I gained from Leijten’s talk was her advice on revision and feedback,” said freshman Art+Design major Adrianna Rodriguez. “When creating a work of art or writing, to just forget about it, keep it out of sight and out of mind. Eventually come back to it ‘with new eyes’ and begin to revise with feedback.”

She added, “Leijten’s talk was truly an eye-opening experience. I will definitely be taking her advice about the creative journey and process while being here at La Sierra.” 

Art instructor Brittany Neimeth teaches a ceramics class of 13 students, three participating via Zoom video conferencing — including one who lives two hours from campus. The in-person sessions meet outdoors on the sculpting studio’s large patio with smaller groups utilizing the indoor space and electric and gas kilns to fire their work. On Sept. 30, guest artist Marie Mingoia gave an outdoor demonstration to Neimeth’s class on how to hand build pottery with slabs, or sheets of clay. Students used the clay sheets to construct vessels. The three online students watched the demonstration from their computers.

“It's been a real pleasure teaching an in-person class,” Neimeth said. “I understand and support the reason why we need to meet via Zoom, but I'm so glad that we're able to safely have the class meet. Hand building [in pottery making] is absolutely possible at home, but it's a much richer experience when you have a studio with equipment and supplies.”

Students who opted to take the class from home picked up their art supplies from the department at the beginning of the quarter. They drop off their art pieces to be fired in a studio kiln. The others tote their supplies in boxes and buckets, including 25-pound bags of clay, to and from the studio space. “It's a little cumbersome, but everyone is making it work and seems genuinely happy to be present and making [art],” said Neimeth.

                            La Sierra students rehearse for recordings to be presented during the music department’s 73rd Annual Candlelight Concert to be presented virtually on Dec. 11 and 12, and its virtual gala on Dec. 20. (Photo: courtesy of Dean Anderson)

La Sierra University students rehearse for recordings to be presented during the music department’s 73rd Annual Candlelight Concert to be presented virtually on Dec. 11 and 12, and its virtual gala on Dec. 20. Photo courtesy of Dean Anderson

The music department is holding in-person rehearsals during fall quarter for physically-distanced, 15-member or less string orchestras and six-member maximum chamber groups with no vocalists or wind instruments. Time is scheduled between rehearsals for room cleaning and ventilation, among other measures. The department received financial assistance for mics, lighting, cameras, computers, and video and audio editing software in order to produce recorded performances for the concert season, said department chair and director of Orchestral Studies Dean Anderson. “We believe that the online platform is here to stay, and we are adjusting our program offerings to embrace this new era of performances and education,” he said.

Creative Approach

Film & Television Production major Laura Cruz is among the limited number of students allowed to live on campus in individual dorm rooms and recently aided a fellow classmate with a commercial photography project.

"Despite the restrictions all college students are facing right now, at La Sierra I am being given the opportunity to be part of a small but safe community,” said Cruz who aims for a career as a professional cinematographer. “COVID hasn't put a stop to my ability to be creative and collaborate with other creatives which is something that has been so important to me in a time where chances to work with others has been so limited."

Darla Martin Tucker is director of public relations for La Sierra University.