Georgia Gwinnett professor uses active learning to engage students during pandemic

David Pursell explains a chemistry concept to a student during his summer organic chemistry course at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24, 2021. Pursell said he lets students take the lead during lab but he makes sure to answer any questions they may have as class progresses.
Caption
David Pursell explains a chemistry concept to a student during his summer organic chemistry course at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24, 2021. Pursell said he lets students take the lead during lab but he makes sure to answer any questions they may have as class progresses.

David Pursell, a chemistry professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, is not often unprepared.

As a student and professor at the U.S. Military Academy, he became an advocate of the Thayer method of instruction which he said taught him to always be prepared. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Pursell found himself quite unprepared to teach his hands-on organic chemistry courses online.

“(There was) a lot of stress for students and for faculty,” Pursell said. “Stress in having to change the way we run class and lab, and not having any experience … doing the online virtual thing.”

Pursell was not alone. A survey by education technology website Course Hero in November 2020 found that 74% of college faculty surveyed reported suffering from significant amounts of stress after having to switch to online learning.

However, one year later, Pursell can reflect on his experience while also appreciating returning to the lab with his students.

When Georgia Gwinnett was founded in 2006 it was built as a college that would combine the best parts of higher education with innovative practices.

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A student walking across Georgia Gwinnett College’s campus in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24. Although the campus is still relatively empty, students are filtering back in for summer classes, and will return for in-person classes in the fall.

Credit: Courtesy Georgia Gwinnett College

A student walking across Georgia Gwinnett College’s campus in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24. Although the campus is still relatively empty, students are filtering back in for summer classes, and will return for in-person classes in the fall.
Caption
A student walking across Georgia Gwinnett College’s campus in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24. Although the campus is still relatively empty, students are filtering back in for summer classes, and will return for in-person classes in the fall.

Credit: Courtesy Georgia Gwinnett College

Credit: Courtesy Georgia Gwinnett College

Pursell, who joined the college as the first chemistry faculty member in 2007, brought one of these innovative practices with him from his time as a student and professor at West Point — the Thayer method, also known as flipped learning.

“For the military, it’s a really important method because it teaches you to be responsible for yourself and to be prepared,” he said.

The Thayer method requires students to go over learning material prior to class to ensure class time is spent on active learning, Pursell said. The method is now used by many of the college’s sciences faculty.

With a diverse student body ranging from dual-enrolled high schoolers to middle-aged parents, the college had to find a way to adapt to all students’ needs. Flipped learning was one way to do so.

“There was always this ideal that part of our difference was going to be the way we engage students,” said Joseph Sloop, chair of the chemistry faculty. “When you’re relying on PowerPoint slides too much ... That’s not really the best way to teach our students.”

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Pursell said he tried to structure his virtual classes similarly to how they were in person. Reading materials were posted in advance; online class time was spent solving chemistry problems. To maintain some collaboration he divided students into teams that alternated leading the class in problem-solving each week. Since students didn’t have access to lab materials, Pursell did them himself, taking detailed photos and notes he shared with students.

It was a decent alternative, but when the opportunity arose this spring for him to secure two adjoining labs, he jumped on it. He turned his virtual organic chemistry course into a hybrid, with students split between the two rooms for in-person labs, and the lectures and problem-solving online.

“I remember being nervous at first, taking organic chemistry online, hybrid style,” said Jade Wang, a senior who took Pursell’s class. “But I really liked his class. He definitely made it more than manageable.”

After a year of virtual classes, Pursell is back in the lab with his students.

Caption
David Pursell in his organic chemistry lab at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24. Pursell, who has been part of the chemistry faculty at GGC for 14 years, said he didn’t always want to be a professor. Growing up, he wanted to join the Army, following in the footsteps of his father.

Credit: Courtesy Georgia Gwinnett College

David Pursell in his organic chemistry lab at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24. Pursell, who has been part of the chemistry faculty at GGC for 14 years, said he didn’t always want to be a professor. Growing up, he wanted to join the Army, following in the footsteps of his father.
Caption
David Pursell in his organic chemistry lab at Georgia Gwinnett College in Lawrenceville, Ga. on Thursday, June 24. Pursell, who has been part of the chemistry faculty at GGC for 14 years, said he didn’t always want to be a professor. Growing up, he wanted to join the Army, following in the footsteps of his father.

Credit: Courtesy Georgia Gwinnett College

Credit: Courtesy Georgia Gwinnett College

“For a challenging course like organic chemistry, developing some teamwork and camaraderie within the section is really beneficial for students,” he said, “and I can see that happening already after just a week of face-to-face courses.”

Things may be almost back to normal, but for Pursell — a two-time recipient of the college’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities — the will to make class better and more productive for his students never stops.

During a sabbatical last fall he contacted a dozen former students to critique the chemistry program. “’Dave (Pursell) didn’t have to do that, but that’s the kind of person he is,” Sloop said. “He’s always thinking about the program and how we (can) improve it.”


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