Teaching lab sciences and the fine arts during COVID-19.
Line by line and curve by curve, Michael McGreal recently transformed a block of ice in his backyard into a swordfish. He drew a small, socially distanced crowd as he went: the buzz of his chain saw and the spectacle of ice carving during a pandemic caught the attention of some passersby.
McGreal was happy to provide distraction and a bit of beauty in a strange time. But this was about work. The chair of culinary arts at Joliet Junior College near Chicago was taping himself for an upcoming meeting of his ice-carving class. Typically, he makes swordfish live on campus in front of students, who then chisel away at their own blocks of ice with power tools.
But this is the COVID-19 era, in which instructors who teach fundamentally hands-on courses across fields are finding ways to make remote learning work.
“It’s not as difficult a transition as I expected,” said McGreal. “The labor part of it is a lot,” he admitted, “setting up our homes to do cooking videos live and taping them. And a lot of us have children at home now.”
At the same time, McGreal continued, “it’s an exciting chance for us to do some things for an online format that will make our face-to-face classes better than ever before.”
Take ice carving. McGreal plans to save the videos he’s made of fish and swan carvings for his students this semester and share them with his classes going forward. That way, he said, students can watch the videos in advance of class and be more prepared to attempt their own sculptures when they meet.
There’s something intimate and effective about asking students to watch their instructors cook and bake in their own home kitchens, McGreal said, even if they’re not cooking on their own now. (The department discussed asking students to cook along via Zoom but decided it was unwise to ask students to pay and even shop for ingredients. Still, many students stuck at home have been cooking on their own and sharing photos with their instructors and peers on chat boards.)
“They’re coming into our worlds now instead of a steel, sterile classroom, and it makes you feel more comfortable,” McGreal said. “Students seem to be loving it.”
McGreal's students are in the hospitality business, after all, he added.
Comfortable doesn’t mean sustainable, however. McGreal said his department’s mostly synchronous cooking sessions, which are later posted to YouTube for students who can’t watch live, are working because students spent at least eight weeks on campus prior to going remote. During that time they learned fundamental techniques in cooking, baking and carving, hands-on. Most of what they’re learning about now, by watching their instructors cook, is the sophisticated application of those skills. It’s hard to imagine that this Food Network-inspired approach to culinary education could work long-term without that kind of introduction, he said.
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