NELSONVILLE — To a passerby, it might have appeared that Ron Cass was standing in the middle of a creek picking up rocks and talking to himself, but that’s not quite accurate.

With a rock in one hand and his cell phone in the other, Cass, an instructor in Hocking College’s School of Natural Resources, was conducting a virtual spring field biology class in Wayne National Forest.

Like other instructors of pre-school to college students around the country, Cass and his Hocking College colleagues had to adapt quickly when in-person classes were suspended in late-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s something that could prove particularly challenging for a school like Hocking, which has marketed itself as a hands-on learning institution.

“The reality is, if we taught field biology all in a lecture, our students would walk out of here with very limited knowledge and experience,” Cass said. “We are what we are. We’re a hands-on school.”

For Cass and his peer instructors, the challenges of distance learning began before classes even restarted. On the first day of class, students receive a kit with about a dozen tools they’ll need to make observations in the field. Cass and fellow instructors Homer Elliot and Cynthia Bauers packaged about 150 field kits and with Natural Resources Office Manager Debbie Arnold addressed and mailed them to students’ homes throughout the country.

Then came the challenge of teaching a hands-on course without being with your students.

“Our classroom is a forest,” Cass said. “Our classroom is a creek. Our classroom is a wetland. Our classroom is a vernal pool. Our classroom is where we are experiencing the education in the field. We feel absolutely strong that if you aren’t in the field you aren’t learning.”

To give his students that experience, Cass is video-conferencing through his cellphone with students while he is in the field.

“I’m walking through the woods with them live,” he explained, adding, “They seem to appreciate it.”

Before he goes live from the field, Cass collected samples and put them in the back of his SUV. In this case, it was samples from a stream, which he showed to students. He then was able to take them with him on a walk through the woods, stopping to point out flowers in bloom, buds on trees, frogs jumping into pools and beaver dams.

“With what we’re doing right now, I’m taking them out into the forest with me and at least they’re hearing me talk in the forest and getting a view of the forest,” he explained. “They’re watching me pull insects out of the water and salamanders from under the logs. It’s working. It’s not ideal, but I think these students are actually looking forward to this class.”

Cass also tasks his students to go on their own nature walks, choosing a spot to observe over time. He said there’s no doubt that the trips outside are helping his students as they socially distance themselves from others. They are required to visit their spot once a week, but Cass said most are going back daily.

“I’ve heard the comment again and again: ‘This is so great. I have to go outside,’” he said.

Students aren’t the only ones learning

Instructors have noticed that transition has been the most difficult for newest students.

“It’s difficult because I’m not there to see if they’re kneading it enough or letting it sit long enough,” said Chef Touria Semingson, a Culinary Arts professor. “It teaches you to have patience and be available to them.”

She’s told her students she’s available five days a week and said she’s received text messages in “the middle of the night” asking for advice or recipes.

When in-person classes resume, Cass and the other field biology instructors plan to continue having students take photographs of plants and animals in the wild and turn them in with identifying information.

“They’re creating a databank of their own slides that they can use in future classes or in the profession,” he explained.

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