Theatrics can find their way into the unlikeliest of places, including the science classroom.
Students of Dr. Gary Meints, associate professor of chemistry at Missouri State University, learn this early on in his online classes.
They are met with boos or applause from his instant audience prop as he delves into homework announcements at the head of the room – the science class equivalent of stepping onto the stage.
This unique teaching tactic is one of many Meints explores to keep students connected in the virtual learning environment, which can also carry value among the return to in-person learning.
“Making a connection is fundamentally getting students to know that you genuinely want to help them learn and care for their wellbeing,” Meints said. “We must then break down any barriers to that learning.”
One potential barrier to learning new material in a new environment is the intimidation it can bring.
To break down this barrier, Meints harnessed humor by bringing props into his teaching practice. This included the instant audience device, as well as hats.
“I wore a different hat to each online class last semester,” he said. “This encouraged students to attend, even if only to see what ridiculous thing I was going to do next.”
The hats-to-humor approach extended to a wide array of headgear, from an inflatable crown to goggles for a Ghostbusters costume.
Fueling comfort in the virtual classroom
Meints prioritizes building student comfort in his virtual classes, even after many classes have moved back to the classroom.
“Every day, I ask how my students are doing and provide surveys to check in on them,” he said. “If they are stressed or struggling, I offer a sympathetic ear and let them know they are not alone.”
A struggle Meints experienced himself was redefining standards for classroom interactions in the virtual environment in a way that accommodated introverts.
This led him to deem use of cameras optional. The act, he admits, occasionally left him burned but also served to build trust.
“In the virtual classroom, I leave it up to students to be actively engaged from their end,” Meints said. “Yet as trying to teach 20 black boxes with names is not easy, I always make a point to thank those present for their engagement and attention.”
Meints has seen these measures, among others, embraced campus wide at Missouri State.
“Many MSU professors work extensively to make the online experience as rewarding as possible for their students,” he said. “There is so much great work happening in the campus community.”
The social role of scientists
Meints double majored in physics and philosophy when he was a student. He has always seen overlap between the humanities and the sciences.
When teaching, he stresses the human element of science that stems from interpreting data and communicating its value to communities.
“Teaching scientific literacy has become especially important amidst the pandemic, as misinformation can be deadly,” Meints said. “This social impact of science should make humanities education a key area of study in the field and not an afterthought.”
Meints will contribute to building community knowledge of a more literal human component of science later this month: DNA.
He will support bringing Dr. James Stivers, a world-renowned expert in DNA repair and professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences at John Hopkins University, to the Discovery Center of Springfield for a guest lecture Oct. 20.
Meints’ recently awarded Jean Dreyfus Lectureship grant, provided by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, will make the public lecture possible.
“The talk will target science enthusiasts of all ages,” Meints said. “We hope for a large turnout of people interested in exploring the connection between science and improving the health and wellbeing of all.”