Teaching hands-on professions under hands-off circumstances

rosanne dizazzo-miller
The Occupational Therapy faculty created inspirational messages for their students as a way to stay connected (DiZazzo-Miller's is above). The students responded with messages of their own.

The course format description that students saw back when they signed up for this semester’s Occupational Therapy Assessments class read: didactic, case presentation and experiential.

It was that last word that troubled OT Associate Professor Rosanne DiZazzo-Miller as she transitioned to online teaching in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Michigan’s shelter-in-place order.

“We were all set to use a human patient simulator,” she said about her intended syllabus. “Performing an assessment and writing it up was part of the exam.”

Not anymore. DiZazzo-Miller is among the many faculty members who rapidly transformed the second half of their winter semester courses in a way that would impart crucial lessons while keeping far-flung students engaged.

Placenta models
First-year Pathologists' Assistant students are learning about Perinatal Pathology, specifically the different presentations of a placenta. Since the program cannot currently hold a lab with real placentas, Assistant Clinical Professor Sarah Burks asked students to submit a drawing of their assigned placental pathology, and the students got really creative. Some used play-doh, some drew beautifully detailed pictures, and others added saran wrap to showcase the placental membranes. 

It’s challenging enough to shift a traditional lecture-based course to an online environment. Moving to a virtual classroom when lesson plans specifically call for hands-on participation is formidable indeed. But faculty in the Eugene Applebaum College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences are finding a range of ways to make it work.

For DiZazzo-Miller, that meant strategically flip-flopping her lesson plans. “I’m lucky enough to have this same group of 34 students in the fall,” she said, adding that she intends to save hands-on experiences until they can be together again.

She is, however, moving forward with transferring-and-dressing competencies that are planned for the spring semester. Instead of gathering in the Jewett lab and having students serve as each other’s patients, DiZazzo-Miller is holding individual videoconferences with each student so they can demonstrate competencies from home. “They have most of what they need on hand,” she said. “Button up shirts, socks, shoes. And I’m being flexible with all the different transfers — they won’t have a sliding board at home but they can demonstrate other transfers that include those skills and complete an oral quiz on the spot.”  

Microscopic images
With the assistance of Assistant Clinical Professor MaryAnne Stewart and Instructional Assistant Alicia Kuzia, the Clinical Laboratory Science program has converted its in-class Hematology lab to a virtual Hematology lab, mimicking a microscope with images at 40X and 100X objectives. Using case studies and lab reports, CLS students can correlate the didactic portion of the class with virtual lectures.

While DiZazzo-Miller had initially filmed all of her lectures and posted them in Canvas, she decided after one week that during future semesters, she will deliver lectures live so she can be present — at least onscreen — with her students. She said, “Because I’m not doing that now, I’m holding live office hours each week for quiz reviews and one-on-one discussion.”

She said current conditions are requiring students to be more self-directed about completing tasks and turning in assignments, but she’s making a point to not be overly strict with deadlines and rules, saying, “The university is encouraging us to be understanding, and as long as the student takes accountability and initiates communication with me, we work it out.”

Indeed, her students are rising to the occasion. “Even during that first week when everything was so stressful, they were so conscientious and sincere,” DiZazzo-Miller said. “Their reaction to these unprecedented circumstances really is a testament to the kind of OTs they’ll be.”

Smiles and support

Jeannetta Greer
Jeannetta Greer with her #WarriorPride scavenger hunt find.

Meanwhile, Director of Radiation Therapy Technology Jeannetta Greer has been starting her Therapeutic Interactions in Oncology Care class sessions with ways to get her students’ minds off the world around them. “Usually I would bring in donuts or have potlucks for my class, but now I’ve got to make them smile in different ways,” she said.

Greer recently told students that she can’t offer treats these days but she can give them five extra credit points for participating in a mini-scavenger hunt. She challenged them to find an item with the Wayne State logo on it and send her a selfie with their green-and-gold treasure.

One student noted that her hair wasn’t camera-ready but everyone eventually, and happily, complied. “This is new for me — I’ve never taught online,” said Greer, noting that she used that as an example recently when talking to students about the course content. “I asked them to reflect upon whether elderly people were adaptable. They thought no, but then I showed them how we are all constantly changing and adapting our whole lives.” (She laughed, saying she remembered thinking that 50 was old when she was in her 20s. A few decades later, she knows that’s far from true.)

Greer said that her students, like their instructor, have adapted well to the online environment, but are worried about not being able to complete their clinical rotations on schedule. “I’ve been assuring them that all accredited programs nationwide are in the same boat, and that we will find a way to make it work,” she said. “The important thing will be getting in there and doing their competency requirements once they return to clinic.

“I’m trying to remain positive and make sure they know I’m here to support them. This is scary for me so I can only imagine how it feels for them.”

An added challenge

PAS Class of 2020
Jamie McQueen virtually huddles with the Physician Assistant Studies Class of 2020.

Assistant Clinical Professor Jamie McQueen is on the front lines as a physician assistant at Ascension Providence Rochester Hospital. She’s also raising three kids under age 10, co-teaching Clinical Medicine, and serving as director of Academics and Assessment for the Physician Assistant Studies program during this period of upheaval. And yet, “I feel so bad for the students,” she said. So she is doing everything in her power to make this a positive — and educational — experience.

McQueen reports her fellow WSU PA educators to be “the team you want when crisis strikes.” Together, the program faculty and staff have had an all hands on deck approach to taking on these new challenges while transitioning to online teaching. “WSU has a plethora of tech resources that our faculty hadn’t much used because our program is defined by stellar hands-on instruction,” she said. “Now our instructors are having to use all of the technologies, all at the same time, and the learning curve is steep.”

McQueen and team currently have plans for breakout groups, putting students in teams of five to 10 to work together virtually as well as increase student-faculty advisor communication using Canvas tools. She said, “We’re thinking outside the WSU PAS toolbox and hoping it works.”

Because WSU Applebaum is so team-oriented, McQueen said faculty members are quick to share techniques and successes with one another, which is good because “right now, our community is crucial. Last week I spent seven days straight at the hospital because that’s where I was needed. My PA colleagues are being pulled to help clinics and hospital units affected by the COVID-19 crisis. More hours are being required of our clinical faculty and they feel a duty to serve above and beyond what they would normally commit.” An increase into the service-to-profession component of a faculty role is an added challenge during the pandemic.

That call to duty is one McQueen’s students will answer sooner than expected. With the State of Michigan lifting the need to take the certification exam until the pandemic clears, 48 WSU PA students will now be ready to serve the community upon graduation this semester. 

During this tumultuous time, “I’m seeing incredible kindness, resiliency and adaptability among our students,” McQueen said. “You have to be flexible to be a PA, and you have to deal with uncertainty. So many of our students are proving they are ready for anything.”

An earlier story detailed an experiential learning adaptation by Assistant Clinical Professor of Occupational Therapy Christine Johnson, who had to abandon plans for hands-on assessments of clients with neurological injury. Instead, she challenged students to create resources that would support those same individuals, including a handout to help clients prepare to be homebound.

Send us your examples of how you are being flexible and creative in the virtual classroom! 

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