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Bureau Staff Support NMT Students During COVID-19

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Dr. Matthew Heizler teaching Argon Geochronology in-class and to remote students.
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Dr. Nels Iverson uses a length of plastic tubing to maintain the required six-foot distance while demonstrating how to use a scanning electron microscope.
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Phil Miller teaching Introduction to Geographic Information Systems to students in class and remotely via Zoom.

Socorro, NM
— September 21, 2020

New Mexico Bureau of Geology staff continue to support New Mexico Tech’s (NMT) educational mission by modifying their courses to accommodate the precautions necessary to minimize the risk of COVID-19 transmission while providing world-class student instruction.

Senior Geochronologist Dr. Matthew Heizler, Coordinator of Map Production Phil Miller, and Research Scientist II Dr. Nels Iverson are teaching courses this fall semester. All have modified the way they teach, course structures, and, in some cases, increased the number of scheduled class times themselves to protect the health of both students and instructor.

“After careful evaluation of the situation, we found paths forward with acceptable and manageable risk that allows our students a modified sense of normalcy as they continue their educations,” said Heizler.

Adapting teaching during COVID-19 presents many challenges. Students and instructors must wear masks or face shields and maintain a distance of six feet between individuals. This has limited the number of students that can be present in a classroom at one time.

As a result, Heizler’s and Miller’s courses have taken on a hybrid structure of in-person and distance education. Heizler teaches Argon Geochronology and Miller teaches Introduction to Geographic Information Systems. For both instructors, distance education was already an option for their courses.

“I have been teaching hybrid courses since 2015,” said Miller. Indeed, Heizler points out, “Since 2015 the Argon Geochronology course has been offered via a distance education model... [It] was the first to participate in the statewide cross enrollment program that has been very successful in allowing students from other universities to take classes that are not offered at their home institutions.”

All three instructors note that accommodating COVID-19 safety precautions has created both challenges, technological and physical, as well as opportunities to increase student access to learning.

On the technological side, classrooms within the Bureau’s building have been retrofitted as smart classrooms. As an example, Dr. Jake Ross, who helps co-teach the argon geochronology course, created an in-bureau smart classroom by purchasing and setting up new equipment such as microphones, cameras, speakers, stylus pads, and headsets for instructor use.

Recorded lectures attended by physically-distant students can also have learning advantages, in addition to ensuring student safety. “Students can go back and watch the instruction over and over,” Miller pointed out. “Non-conventional students can work at times that are appropriate for them. They do not have to take time off work to attend courses. They can ask questions just like any other student, and get answers.”

In terms of physical challenges, because Iverson’s laboratory course focuses on learning to use a scanning electron microscope, it must be hands on. The class cannot accommodate a hybrid model. To ensure student safety, Iverson has limited the number of students in the lab to three per class period and increased the number of sections taught to four.

While this presented challenges, including increasing Iverson’s workload, there are advantages to smaller class sizes. “I get to interact with the students more because the classes are smaller,” said Iverson. “I want them all to feel like the class is directed toward them, and with fewer students that is easier.” He also uses a length of plastic tubing to point things out to students on computer monitors while maintaining the required six-foot distance.

“COVID-19 has been a strange and stressful time for all of us,” Iverson commented. “In-person human interaction has been at a minimum the past 6 months, and if we can have a little bit of normalcy…I think that is good for the students and myself.”

Choosing to persevere through the challenges inherent in maintaining safety during this challenging time was something all of the instructors felt was crucial. “Students have a clock,” Miller said. “They expect to graduate at a specific time…so as to not jeopardize or delay a student's future, I felt it was critical to continue to offer my course.”

“Even relatively short interruptions of a student’s education path can have severe consequences in completion of their research,” said Heizler. “It is pleasing to me to be able to help them move forward and watch them embrace COVID-19 as something that we all need to deal with, but which will not stop them in their career pursuits. It’s not surprising that a scientifically driven organization like the Bureau of Geology continues to provide multiple education opportunities for our youth, despite the challenges of COVID-19.”