Online Science Lab Curriculum Developed by William Paterson Professor Nicole Davi Helps Teachers During COVID-19 Pandemic

Professor Nicole Davi

With more educators across the globe being forced to teach their classes virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, an online science lab curriculum developed by William Paterson University Professor of Environmental Science Nicole Davi is seeing a hefty uptick in usage.

“Educators requesting access to the curriculum are coming from all over,” Davi says. “For example, the most recent requests came from a geography professor in Germany, an environmental science professor from Colorado, and a high school physics and environmental science teacher from Massachusetts.”

Before the pandemic, through a grant from the National Science Foundation, Davi led a team to design a free online curriculum of five, two- to three-hour multimedia lab classes to be used primarily by professors teaching introductory science courses. (Note to interested educators: Davi provides extremely helpful information about her curriculum in an article published in the Journal of Tree-Ring Research.)

Davi’s online labs and her research expertise are based in dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating – analyzing growth rings of trees/wood to determine both the year each ring was grown and details of the environment at the time. Accordingly, her bundle of lab classes is referred to as “TREX” – short for “Tree-Ring Expeditions.” However, she stresses, her labs translate for use in introductory courses in geology or environmental sustainability, among others, or more advanced courses in research methods, hydrology, and climate change science.

 “The pandemic has changed the higher education system literally overnight.  It has been incredible to see universities training faculty and students in what feels like light speed to get up and running online,” Davi says. “I think the importance of high-quality online learning materials will continue to increase, even after the pandemic and social distancing subside,” she adds, noting their convenience for working students. “The technology for online classes is pretty remarkable and it is only going to improve at this point.”

Among other offerings, TREX labs include interactive maps and virtual 360-degree field exploration (using Google Earth technology and Davi’s own photos that have been loaded into that system), videos of scientist interviews and field work, an animation about identifying climate-sensitive trees, and high-resolution scans of tree cores from the study sites – which can be zoomed into and out of using virtual microscopes.

The multimedia component of her teaching resource, Davi says (she employed experts in animation and video editing, for example), makes TREX labs stand out from other online offerings – especially ones that are free. 

“I’m getting one or two requests a day for the instructor guides, although we design the labs so that they can also be run without the guides,” Davi explains. “It is interesting to see the increasing demand and I imagine that is happening with many online resources. A professor contacted me today that her summer field course has been cancelled, so she wants to try out the materials and virtual field trips we built in TREX.”

There are many high quality science resources out there for teachers, Davi explains, “but it takes some ‘bushwhacking’ to find them, and then it takes time to go through materials and see if they are not only complete and manageable for a given instructional time frame, but also a good fit for your students and your learning goals. It can suck up a lot of time.”

She subsequently created her TREX webpage to be educator-friendly, with very clear descriptions, time-frames, and learning outcomes.

Davi is thrilled that so many educators are subsequently finding her curriculum useful – particularly in what is already a difficult time for so many people globally.

When international travel is deemed safe again, Davi will take TREX to Colombia through a Fulbright grant to develop long term climate records from high-altitude ecosystems of the Colombian Central Cordillera. She will work with Colombian scientists at EAFIT University and Universidad EIA, where she plans to use TREX to train faculty and students on dendrochronological methods. She will also give public lectures and/or run a faculty workshop on tree-ring science and using TREX in a variety of courses.