LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. – David Pursell, a chemistry professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, is not often unprepared.
As a student and professor at the U.S. Military Academy, he became an advocate of the Thayer method of instruction which he said taught him to always be prepared. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Pursell found himself quite unprepared to teach his hands-on organic chemistry courses online.
“[There was] a lot of stress for students and for faculty,” Pursell said. “Stress in having to change the way we run class and lab, and not having any experience … doing the online virtual thing.”
Pursell was not alone. A survey by Course Hero in November 2020 found that 74% of college faculty surveyed reported suffering from significant amounts of stress after having to switch to online learning.
It was certainly a rough start and – given the nature of emergency situations – it didn’t offer a lot of room for reflection. However, one year later, Pursell can look back and truly consider his experience while also appreciating getting to return to the lab with his students this past spring.
When Georgia Gwinnett was founded in 2006 – the first four-year public college started in the U.S. in the 21st century – it was built as a college that would combine the best parts of higher education with innovative practices, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Pursell, who joined the college as the first chemistry faculty member in 2007, brought one of these innovative practices with him from his time as a student and professor at West Point – the Thayer method, also known as flipped learning.
“People tend to think it’s a new thing,” Pursell said. “At West Point, the system has been going on since the early 1800s. For the military, it’s a really important method because it teaches you to be responsible for yourself and to be prepared.”
The Thayer method requires students to go over learning material prior to class to ensure class time is spent on active learning, Pursell said. He, along with a few of his colleagues, held workshops on the method for the first few chemistry faculty members at the college, and since then it has spread to most of the faculty and even other disciplines.
“When [students] come to class, we focus on collaborative problem solving … so it’s a very active thing,” Pursell said. “Sometimes college can be really passive – the professor lectures and you feverishly take notes. My view is that that’s really old school.”
Many students appreciate the deviation from the norm. Former student Lorraine Kadima said Pursell would have them running around, jumping to the board just to get a correct answer.
It’s a method intended to make learning more of an active process; however, it’s not a method intended for the virtual world.
“I think there’s a lot of social pressure that helps get some synergy among students to prepare, come to class, work together and try to advance collectively,” Pursell said of his usual classes. “In the virtual world, it’s a lot harder to do that.”
It isn’t easy to be responsible for yourself when you feel isolated. Even less present is the sense of team spirit that Pursell aims to foster in his chemistry classes, which can make virtual learning a challenge for students.
Nonetheless, Pursell said he tried to structure his virtual classes similarly to how they used to be in person. The material students needed to read was posted in advance, and when the students logged on to Zoom, most of the class was spent solving chemistry problems. Pursell tried to maintain some semblance of group cohesiveness by dividing students into teams and having the teams alternate leading the class in problem solving each week. For labs, since students didn’t have access to materials, Pursell executed them himself. He took detailed photos as he went then wrote out instructions and shared both with his students.
It was a decent alternative, but Pursell much preferred teaching in person, which is why, when the opportunity arose in the spring of 2021 for him to secure two labs next to each other, he jumped on it, and turned his virtual organic chemistry course into a hybrid, with the labs in person — half the class in one lab and half in the other — and the lectures and problem solving online.
Jade Wang, a senior who took Pursell’s hybrid organic chemistry course in the spring, said she would have preferred the class being fully in person though, precisely because of how hard it was to fully connect as a group. Getting to work on chemistry problems together in person would have been nice, she said, and getting to know the people in your class means more chances of helping each other out.
It’s not an easy task, trying to ensure students are grasping one of the hardest college subjects. And while Pursell won’t be the first to say it, it’s thanks to his unique methods as well as his tenacity and dedication that his students succeeded, even during a worldwide pandemic.
“I remember being nervous at first, taking organic chemistry online, hybrid style,” Wang said. “But I really liked his class. He definitely made it more than manageable.”
Wang said Pursell made himself available to them day or night, saying to text him anytime. When they came into class for labs, he was willing to stay after for as long as they needed.
“The class ended at 9:15 p.m., and sometimes he would stay until 9:40,” Wang said. “I felt so bad – but that’s the time that he would spend trying to help us.”
Kadima described Pursell as someone who knows how to make something difficult fun, and credits him as the reason she and a lot of her classmates passed organic chemistry. Wang – who ended up successfully completing the course as well – agrees.
Now, after almost a year of virtual classes, Pursell is back in the lab with his students for the summer. Things may be almost back to normal, but for Pursell — a two-time recipient of the college’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities — the will to make class better and more productive for his students never stops.
“Dave [Pursell] had a sabbatical this past fall,” said the chair of the college’s chemistry faculty, Joseph Sloop. “One of the things he did was contact a dozen of his former students. He asked them ‘what was the best thing about our program?’ … and ‘what things could we do better?’ He didn’t have to do that, but that’s the kind of person he is. He’s always thinking about the program and how we [can] improve it.”