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Notes From the “New Territory”

March 23rd marked the start of all online classes at SUNY Potsdam, the continuing journey toward our academic goals and with these, a test of our collective will and capacity.

In hopes of reminding everyone of the themes which unite us in our new challenges, our campus community members are offering snapshots into their own personal “new territory.” One benefit of these posts is that they may help us learn new methods and gain ideas from each other.

notes graphicBuilding a resilient landscape

At the same time that we should be acting calming and decisively and taking the long view of a pandemic that could keep us at home for weeks, it is easy to become caught in the play-by-play of COVID-19 and feel paralyzed by the situation. Isolation, a sense of helplessness and an uncertainty of when it will end —these are all impacts to our inner landscape that are no less real than the outer disruption of our routines and life as we knew it.

The SUNY Potsdam community continues to share stories of how its members are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and the New Normal, and how they are working to build inner resiliency and a stronger community. They remind us of the countless ways we are all in this together.

Mike Rygel teaches his geology class before the move to online learning.

Students in Michael Rygel’s cartography class are empowering themselves by creating an infographic addressing some aspect of the pandemic. Rygel, chair of the SUNY Potsdam Department of Geology, has compiled his own infographic of St. Lawrence County statistics ranging from a breakdown of most-at-risk populations to an accounting of intensive care beds and of our ability to use technology to connect.

The news surrounding COVID-19 is ever-present, overwhelming, upsetting, and distracting. Particularly because so much of it is out of our control, we are just forced to sit back and watch it unfold,” Rygel said. “The only part that we have some control over is the ability to do social distancing. I found it frustrating that I can't do something to fix this situation. 

“So, I decided to channel that frustration in a productive way, to gather and share important facts with the community — something that I could do well from home using technology, that meshed well with the skills and content in my cartography class, and that I could share with my students to empower them.”

notes graphicThe Next Best Thing

Making solutions, preparing samples, and studying reactions and the formation of complex ions in the labthe show must go on.

Fitting chemistry challenges onto the flat face of a computer has become a sudden and unexpected specialty for John Proetta '09. An instructional support assistant at SUNY Potsdam, his forte has traditionally been lab chemicals. Now, he has been thrust into the role of crafting and facilitating a unified approach to the online delivery of chemistry lab instruction.

John Proetta '09 prepares to record a chemistry experiment with his phone for students working remotely this semester.

In a world where the old playbook has been thrown out, Proetta finds himself on tight deadline, working one-on-one to help instructors in their scramble to present their materials through the screen. Among those who have turned to him, Dr. Maria Hepel had previously relied on a face-to-face style of instruction with very limited technology. Proetta helped get an internet connection to her house for the first time and is working closely with her on creating online presentations that will help Hepel, a SUNY Distinguished Professor of chemistry at SUNY Potsdam, to grab the digital challenge and run with it.

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notes graphicDr. Page Quinton, assistant professor of geology:

“You can tell things have changed in my house, the kitchen table — usually pretty clean and clear — is now covered in books, lab manuals, and my course notes. It has become my work zone and it's not a pretty scene! But, through the mess I've managed to figure out a way to convert all my classes to online delivery. I'm very excited about the way I decided to convert lectures to the online format. Using a virtual whiteboard I am able to talk, write, and draw like I do in front of the classroom."

“Labs have been a bit trickier! Geology is a very specimen and skills-based discipline and figuring out a way to deploy labs online is not straightforward. We have a huge fossil teaching collection for a reason! Luckily, technology has come pretty far. There are some awesome 3D models and I've been able to find some resources that will give my students time with fossil specimens! This transition to remote learning is going to be hard for all of us, but I know we will make the best of it and I am very excited about getting started with the new normal!”

notes graphicHadley Kruczek-Aaron, anthropology department chair:

“All of us have been working like crazy to get our courses redesigned and ready for next week. Some of us are doing that while also having our own kids at home. I think I’ve attended a dozen webinars this week about online learning! Through those, I’ve already learned a ton of new teaching tools that I know I will use in the future.

File photo of Kruczek-Aaron during the annual atlatl battle.

“In terms of students, I’ve been really moved by the losses they are feeling for some of the learning experiences we won’t be able to have this semester. They are also concerned about managing their children while trying to manage their own schoolwork. Others are grappling with technology limitations. And still others are worried about learning in an online environment when they have learning disabilities. I hope they will feel better once some of the uncertainty clears up over the next week or so.

“I know the faculty are going to do their best to put them at ease. I know I am daunted by the task, but I am also excited about learning new things.”

notes graphicTim Messner, associate professor of archaeology:

Messner is known for his hands-on techniques for connecting students to the archaeological record and human practices of the distant past. Now he has to determine how that translates to the computer screen.

Messner collects sap from the trees in front of Satterlee Hall. Normally students from the Anthropology Club are busy gathering sap and boiling it to make maple syrup this time of year—in turn selling it as a fundraiser for the club. Messner is filling in! He will take the sap home, boil it in a makeshift evaporator, and give it to the the anthropology club in the fall.

“I’m just trying to think about how to move forward in the best way possible — thinking about how to take a hands-on approach to learning and to make it available over the internet. I’ve been looking at the different tutorials and webinars dealing with different approaches to online learning. I’m going to rely heavily on video in the hopes of producing different sorts of tutorials that deal with topics and ideas. I’m going to have students try the activities at home with materials that would be commonly available in peoples’ houses.”

A big hand is in order for all of our faculty, students and staff as together, we face a new normal and keep to the mission of a quality education and a connected community.

By Bret Yager, Photos by Jason Hunter