The 2020-21 academic year was like no other. Faculty spent most of the summer redesigning courses for hybrid-flexible models, remote learning, and the reality that students would simultaneously be in the classroom and attending via Zoom. Students likewise had to adapt to these new demands of “mask-to-mask” and virtual learning. Despite difficulties, faculty and students found ways to connect and engage with material that will enhance future courses in non-pandemic times.

Four masked students sitting at desks in a classroom with a masked instructor standing at the front.

Courses redesigned for COVID safety, flexibility

As faculty returned to campus in August 2020, they redesigned their courses using new technology, tools and techniques gathered independently and through campus workshops. Course structures varied, with professors balancing the need for in-person classes with the necessity of remote instruction in different ways. Many chose to prerecord lectures and use class time to discuss material, complete group work or for deep dives into difficult subjects.

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In science labs, where hands-on and group learning are central to course objectives, the need for physical distancing and remote or hybrid instruction last year forced faculty to reimagine operations. Professors devised alternatives to the traditional lab format, redesigned experiments, introduced new materials and assessments, and created virtual experiences for remote learning.

Faculty restructured hybrid-based cellular biology labs, splitting classes into sections that alternately completed modified in-person lab activities and met with the instructor or teaching assistants during the weekly three-hour laboratory block. Biology faculty also collaborated to create a repository of video tutorials, digital pre-lab assignments and lab activities aimed at non-majors. Chemistry faculty developed a hybrid lab curriculum for general chemistry consisting of four in-person labs and four virtual, prerecorded labs and shared teaching duties across courses. Other chemistry faculty developed new experiments using common kitchen and household items for remote learning. Physics faculty distributed lab kits to each student in introductory physics labs in the event of remote learning or quarantine — meaning that every student was able to complete each lab assignment whether they could be in the lab or not. In exercise science, faculty modified some labs for remote experiments and data collection and used videos of physical assessments and sample data for students to complete assignments. These are but a few of the creative solutions science faculty used to create safe and successful student experiences.

Ensemble rehearsals also took a cue from safety: the Fire of the Carolinas Marching Band rehearsed in small sections spaced 18 feet apart on the field — wearing face and instrument coverings — and Camerata vocal ensemble members practiced wearing face shields 15 feet apart inside Whitley Auditorium and Holt Chapel.

New technology fostered new ways to engage with material. Kaltura offered new ways to record lectures and voiceover slides. Music faculty combined a number of apps to make remote recording of duets and performances possible and for faculty and students to practice music remotely. Other apps offered more interactive slides and presentation options, the ability to share annotation and reflections to readings within the assigned text, and to augment an online gaming tool for more engaging virtual sessions.

A screenshot of the virtual SURF day presentations on the Gather platform.

SURF Day gets a virtual, 8-bit makeover

Parts of the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum in April resembled classic Nintendo games of the 1980s.

Using the Gather platform, participants chose avatars and traveled a map populated by a series of poster rooms. Walking into a room would show the presenter, over a Zoom webinar, and others listening to the presentation. Poster sessions and panels based on particular subjects were grouped together, with faculty moderating as students presented results of their research.

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Though the pandemic disrupted undergraduate research, limiting travel, data collection and collaboration, students and mentors adapted projects to conform to those restrictions. Hundreds of students participated in SURF Day 2021.

Dancers wearing masks while doing stretches at a ballet barre.

Performing arts adapt to distancing, stream filmed performances

How does a troupe dance, act, sing and rehearse together in a time of physical distancing and no mass gatherings? How can actors, dancers and crew bring their work to audiences? The Department of Performing Arts found answers to these questions to present 13 plays, musicals and dance concerts in 2020-21.

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Dance studios were sectioned into grids, tape marking 10-foot squares for each dancer to rehearse in. Actors rehearsed outdoors on lawns or beneath tents. Some performances were filmed scene by scene and edited by students in the interactive media program for streaming on Musicals like “Beast Mode Champion” and “The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin” were painstakingly blocked and shot with actors masked and distanced. By spring, as case numbers dropped, productions were rehearsed indoors and staged for livestreaming.