By: Beth Ann Luedeker
Soil and Crop Sciences faculty and staff weigh in on the impact of COVID
Change is inevitable, but this year it has been extreme. The COVID19 pandemic disrupted our personal and professional lives, creating an avalanche of change.
Faculty, staff, and students in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences will see a much different semester this fall. Teaching faculty has been scrambling to provide remote options to classes that will remain in place even after face-to-face instruction resumes. Updated classrooms now include the technology to meet the demands of virtual attendance needs.
Labs and other hands-on activities will take on a whole new look.
“My class typically introduces students to real-world challenges that they will face in the turfgrass industry. In the past it has involved several site visits, hands-on activities, and guest speaking arrangements and interactions,” said Chase Straw, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Turfgrass Science who joined the faculty this spring. “Unfortunately, this year is going to be a much different experience for the students because the site visits will be minimal and many of the guest speakers will talk to the class via Zoom. I still very much look forward to teaching the course; it is just not what I expected for my first go-around at A&M.”
“Our need for social distancing has made me rethink how I can deliver information and assess learning,” said Dr. Steve Hague, Ph.D., Professor and cotton breeder. “I am anxious to roll out these new techniques and interact with students on a regular basis.”
Like others, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension faculty and program specialists have totally revamped their programs. Zoom meetings and video have taken the place of the standard meetings, presenting both benefits and challenges.
While all hope to be able to continue with their face-to-face meetings, changes were necessary, especially in the short run.
“I am planning to continue Texas Watershed Stewards (TWS) workshops in person, with an option to attend remotely,” said Michael Kuitu, AgriLife Extension Program Specialist and program coordinator. “However, there are still multiple hurdles to get through. Since we will be delivering curriculum via a new format, we need to get new approvals from the Texas Department of Agriculture, Texas Floodplain Management Association and other professional organizations we provide continuing education for.”
“The Texas Soil Service and Water Conservation Board has approved a one-year, no-cost extension for TWS, and we will be adding a virtual attendance option to our in-person workshops”, Kuitu said. “We have yet to see how it goes. I’m sure there will be some learning on my part, but I am looking forward to it!”
“One thing that is really different for me is the absence of field days and crop tours,” said Dale Mott, AgriLife Extension Program Specialist in the cotton program. “Some field days and trainings were cancelled, and others had to move to a virtual platform. This provided an avenue to discuss current hot topics and management strategies, but I feel my message may not come across with the same impact as it can with an in-person event in the fields.”
On the positive side, Mott sees the possibility for the virtual crop tours to reach non-traditional participants and those who may not be available on the day of the tour. Those people can view the recorded program and even review sections at their discretion, he said.
“The thirst for outreach remains strong, and the virtual meetings are filling the gap to provide basic knowledge, but there is another level of education we can’t deliver virtually,” said Jake Mowrer, Assistant Professor in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences and AgriLife Extension Specialist for Soil Nutrient & Water Resource Management. “There is no substitute for face to face interaction and being outdoors looking, feeling and smelling as we did before.”
“We are handling it, doing the best we can, but we couldn’t have done it without the support of administration. They were quick to provide us the infrastructure and resources we need to fulfill our mission to our stakeholders,” he said.
“Testing the participants’ water samples is the meat and potatoes of the Texas Well Owner Network programs,” said Joel Pigg, AgriLife Extension Program Specialist and TWON coordinator. “There is a very small window to test for bacteria after the water is collected. This poses a problem for virtual meetings.”
Pigg pointed out that for his first virtual program, delivered to well owners in Hockley County near Lubbock, Program Specialist John Smith and the Hockley County Extension agent had to meet in Abilene to transfer the water samples.
“Face-to-face interaction is what makes this program. It is very hands on. At the same time, the average age of our participants is 50 to 70 years of age. They are the most vulnerable, and their health is a concern,” Pigg said.
The future remains uncertain, and time will tell. But for now, everyone is making a great effort to adapt and to continue educating as well as they can.