For fans of the television show Mary’s Kitchen Crush, a major appeal is watching the animated host make the most of found ingredients to create dazzling results, doing it all with a healthy dose of enthusiasm. That same appeal applies to Trent University Assistant Professor Deborah Durbin’s general chemistry students, who this summer have been treated to her own brand of kitchen maneuvers, which have included making silly putty from starch, glue, and food colouring or a simple circuit using a light bulb, a “D” battery and some aluminum foil.
These are the kinds of laboratory experiments Durbin has been overseeing for a class that has been scattered by the pandemic and is now linked only through computer networks and conferencing software. As a young instructor, she has been no less displaced, operating out of the kitchen at her sister’s house, where she has been living to help out during the pandemic. It has been a learning experience for everyone, she explains, one that has shed light on the diversity of circumstances and limited resources that some of her students are confronting.
“I was facing the challenge of walking students through lab activities when some of them could not even access something as simple as a general store,” she says. “Some students were emailing me saying that they lived with their elderly grandparents and literally couldn’t leave the apartment. So I had to come up with labs that were still relevant and they could do with supplies that they probably already had at home.”
That was among the most straightforward of the challenges for Durbin, who has also struggled to get the now familiar Zoom interface to record and archive her lectures or juggled the schedule for live presentations to arrive at the best time for students with a shared household computer to take part.
She is far from alone in having to deal with the demands of delivering chemical curricula online, but it sometimes feels that way to her. In fact, she is the only Trent chemistry instructor delivering courses this summer, so none of her campus colleagues are in a position to compare their own experiences with hers. For just that reason, she began working with the Chemistry Education Division of CIC to create a regular forum where other instructors in her position can make just such comparisons with one another.
“It will give us a chance to connect as a community,” she notes, “and to be able to share everything from ‘I did this and it worked really well’ to ‘I did this and it sucked’.”
For Division Chair Jessica D’eon, an associate professor, teaching stream in the University of Toronto’s Department of Chemistry, the idea made perfect sense because it was already being done on a smaller scale on her campus.
“In a really large institution like this, there’s been a lot of forums where summer instructors can get together and talk about their experiences,” she says. “We’ve been changing things on the fly, in terms of which online platforms are recommended, and things like that. At smaller institutions or as a community, this could be especially useful for the summer instructors to provide feedback to those who are going to be teaching larger classes during the academic year.”
The new forum is part of CIC ViRTUAL, where it now appears as a stream called Whine & Wine. Although not a direct enticement to complain and imbibe (a full range of preferred beverages is encouraged), as the organizer Durbin is openly inviting discussions on any topic of interest to members of a community who find themselves exploring new territory.