Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 29, 2020

Online classes aren't the same, but there's so much to look forward to

STEM Major Survival Guide

By JESSICA KASAMOTO | October 1, 2020

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Freshmen have a lot of Hopkins life to look forward to. 

Dear freshman,

I’m sure you’ve already heard a lifetime’s worth of “We-are-so-sorry-we-can’t-be-together-in-person-but-welcome-to-Hopkins-we-are-so-so-so-so-excited-to-have-you!!! HAVE A GREAT FIRST SEMESTER! **INSERT CLOWN EMOJI HERE**” type messages, so I’ll just cut out the formalities and cut to the chase. 

Online learning kind of stinks, especially when this most certainly is not what you signed up for, and I am very, very sorry that your first semester had to be like this.

Usually, here at STEM Major Survival Guide, I try to be positive because I like to go against the cynical nature of annoyingly jaded Hopkins students, but to be honest, besides getting to procrastinate on learning to do your own laundry, there’s not that much positivity I can give you about the present state of things.

However, I do have a word or two to say about the future. I know it’s really hard to look into the future at the present moment since it basically feels like it’s still March, but guys, you’ll get here eventually! 

You will at some point step foot in a lab, sit in a lecture hall, complain about walking to Bloomberg, fight with your roommates and cry in Brody!

In addition, your quality of education will definitely improve (especially for you, STEM majors). While I applaud all the people who have put hours and hours over the summer into making online learning a little better than it was in the spring, honestly, there are just some things that cannot be done virtually.

From my experiences in my science and engineering courses, here are just a few:

1. Office hours and other study groups. As a veteran office hours enthusiast, while I do 100 percent appreciate the efforts that teaching assistants (TAs) and professors have put into having extra virtual office hours, it’s just not the same as cramming into the professor’s office or working through problems with TAs in Clark Hall. 

First, in a Zoom office hour, there can only be one conversation happening at a time, usually between one student and one TA. You wait, ask your single question, and usually after, you feel awkward just lurking there, so you send your “Thank you!” in the chat and leave the Zoom call. 

And while there definitely can be a lot of waiting in in-person office hours, it’s usually not nearly as much. In my experience, you go to office hours and end up working with your peers 95 percent of the time. You meet people, exchange phone numbers, bounce ideas off each other, draw things on the board, fix each other’s code and just learn things together, with your TAs there to guide you in the right direction and lecture you on specific topics. I’m 100 percent serious when I say that quite a few of my friendships here at Hopkins have begun in office hours (and that might just be because I’m a nerd, but that’s okay).

And even if you’re shy and not an office hours goer (which is 100 percent fine, although I really recommend it), at least in the Whiting School of Engineering, I know very few people who don’t have a group of people that they can work with, study with and compare answers with in Brody at 2 a.m. on a Thursday. While Zoom study calls can be helpful, we just can’t interact and collaborate in that same way. 

2. Classroom questions and discussions. It’s been six months, and most of us are all still camera/Zoom shy (me included). It’s really hard for professors to interact with us and see if we actually get the material if everyone’s cameras are off. Body language and facial expressions are a lot more important to professors than a lot of people may realize. It gives them important cues, so they know to go back to previous material or go slower if needed. At least in my experience, I feel like a lot of people are less willing to ask questions about class content when we are online. The ability to send questions in the chat box is a nice plus in Zoom, but I still feel like many important interactions and conversations are simply lost in the virtual format.
3. Lab classes. This is pretty obvious but extremely important. As much as I have complained about both my intro and upper-level lab courses, I really appreciate the fact that I was able to take most of them in person.

Sure, pipetting water into a flask for the purpose of writing a lab report on basic equipment skills can be maddening, but really, how else are we going to learn these basic skills? Granted, watching your professor do the lab work for you is almost certainly easier, less stressful and less time consuming, but I’d be really concerned if all of the future scientists and engineers of America had to physically learn to use their equipment for the first time day one of the job because the entirety of their university education was... over Zoom.

And while this may be somewhat easier dealt with in engineering courses that can ship Arduinos, circuit kits and other mechanical devices to their students (I say somewhat because I still believe that not having the TAs there for physical help will most certainly cause many problems), I really don’t see this being solved in any good way for biology and chemistry wet lab courses.

4. Research. Obviously many, many research opportunities are lost when we are virtual. It’s usually easy for freshmen to cold email a bunch of professors and find someone who would be willing to take them in a lab, but there are only so many labs that have virtual work available. This is a shame, since I know that for a lot of people, the ability to do research played a big role in their decision to come to Hopkins. And even if you are doing computational work for a wet-lab, it’s still the same drawback as virtual lab courses — if you want to learn how to qPCR, the best way to do so is by qPCRing, not by looking at the data that your graduate student got for you.

So yes, there’s certainly a lot to be bummed about, since there really is a lot that you’re missing in your first year (first-year friendships, the excitement of moving to a new city away from your parents, the first time being independent, new social life aside). But still, like I said before, the best way to look at things is that all this stuff is just waiting for you. You will get to do this stuff eventually.

I’m not saying in-person college life is all rainbows and butterflies (it’s really, really not), but it is a lot easier to appreciate when you’ve experienced a college life with many of these great things taken away.

You’ll get here, and you guys will be okay. Don’t listen to the cynical people on Reddit. I read an interview a few months ago with a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, and he said that in a few years, we’ll all be at parties laughing and talking about what we did in the year 2020. And I’m not going to lie, that thought made me very, very happy.

Take care of yourselves!

Your favorite columnist,

Jessica

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