As the coronavirus pandemic has driven educators’ creativity, one of the first and most innovative has been Oklahoma State University’s Sergio Abit, whose efforts to go virtual have provided benefits to students at OSU and five cooperating, two-year institutions across the state.
“It was obvious rather quickly that we needed to create virtual versions of our Fundamentals of Soil Science laboratory exercises and make them available online,” said Abit, an associate professor with OSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “Then we realized, why not just make them accessible to agricultural and science programs at other state institutions so they could be used as part of their coursework.”
Abit was soon Dr. Popularity, as a high-quality, immersive virtual laboratory was just what his fellow educators needed at Cameron University, Eastern Oklahoma State College, Northern Oklahoma College, Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College and Western Oklahoma State College as they struggled with social distancing.
“Dr. Abit’s virtual labs have definitely strengthened and expanded our available resources,” said Kathy Allison, a faculty member at NOC in Tonkawa. “His teaching is thorough and leaves nothing uncovered, and his personality is perfect for the virtual labs: entertaining yet maintaining a professional demeanor.”
Abit and Glenn Garcia, the graduate teaching assistant who records laboratory presentations, came up with a winning formula for the virtual labs by projecting what they would need if they were students.
Each online experience begins with a pre-lab discussion that focuses on key questions presented in an easily understood manner – for example: why prevent soil loss? Abit highlights important soil functions such as how soil provides for food, fiber and fuel; ecological regulation; healthy microorganism habitat; and an engineering foundation for structures.
Following the pre-lab discussion, students can access user-friendly video clips they can play and rewind as needed to suit their own personal pace of learning. They can pause the videos to focus on answering questions, writing observations and recording data in their lab reports before continuing to the next clip. Each virtual lab session typically has four or five video segments.
“Having a renowned soil scientist like Dr. Abit share his virtual labs has been a gift to all of us who are using them,” Allison said. “It has freed up more time for me to work on my own lectures, and to reach out to students who may have anxiety about coronavirus concerns or to spend more time with those who may have been struggling academically prior to the pandemic.”
Allison pointed out an extra bonus: Many NOC students eventually transfer to OSU. She said the value of seeing a familiar faculty member should not be underestimated, especially if they continue to take more advanced soil and plant science courses.
Agriculture Instructor Alisen Anderson of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College in Miami said Abit’s ability to think outside the box in his laboratory presentations has some of her students asking questions they likely would not have considered otherwise. She lauded his ability to enhance individualized learning in a shared environment.
“I know Dr. Abit has allowed me as an instructor to be more [immersive] in my approach and do more to make sure students are learning,” Anderson said. “I love Dr. Abit’s zest for teaching and how we have come together in the pandemic. It has solidified my professional career choice.”
Abit’s academic department head is among those who have been impressed by the virtual laboratories. An OSU faculty member since 2004, Jeff Edwards said Abit is a prime example of the students-first focus in the university’s Ferguson College of Agriculture.
“It’s no surprise Dr. Abit has been able to develop a virtual lab that is educational and engaging and ensures students receive the technical training and knowledge they need to succeed,” Edwards said. “Sergio is an awesome teacher. I recommend people look at a virtual lab such as the one on Soil Erosion and then imagine what it is like to attend his classes in person.”
Fundamentals of Soil Science historically attracted a wide swath of students even before the pandemic. This past semester saw 96 OSU students from 14 majors enrolled, and then that number expanded significantly after going virtual.
More information about academic and other programs of the OSU Department of Plant and Soil Sciences is available online.