Today for “Faculty Spotlight” we’re sitting down with Dr. Jerome Lavis, who serves Schoolcraft College as a Professor of Chemistry and also as the Faculty Forum President.
Schoolcraft College: Hello, Dr. Lavis! To start out, we are in unprecedented times in terms of how people are teaching and learning at all levels of education. What has stood out to you over this past year or so, both as an individual professor and leader of our faculty?
Dr. Jerome Lavis: What I was most impressed with over the past year was the adaptability of the faculty and the College as a whole as well as the collaborations that occurred between faculty as well as between the faculty and the administration. During the end of the Winter 2020 semester, faculty were able to quickly turn around to finish the semester, and as the reality of the long-term future settled in, prepare for the next Spring and Fall. With the support of the administration, Media Services and especially Distance Learning bringing their expertise forward, faculty were quickly able to get trained and switch their method of teaching.
SC: The Schoolcraft College faculty has been outstanding in terms of adaptability and sharing best practices. In many ways, our professors and instructors have had to “go back to school” in terms of their teaching methods. Could you please highlight a couple of success stories and learnings?
Dr. Jerome Lavis: I probably should start with Chemistry, and the adaptation of the laboratory to the new environment. This was a true challenge as the department felt that some of the courses needed to use the school facilities for teaching laboratories, due to the inherent dangers of some of the chemicals used.
This required a complete change in the operation of the labs. Occupancy had to be dropped, and in order to maintain a workable enrollment all activities that did not involve the use of chemicals had to be pushed to a remote format, with the extensive recording of videos. Also, to avoid students getting in contact with each other, we moved to students having their own chemicals. This required tremendous work from Melissa Gury’s team, who was in charge of the logistics, and none of this would have been possible without them. This was a true cooperative effort from all faculty, staff and administration. And some of the new formats are expected to be maintained even after the lifting of social distancing restrictions as they were actual improvements.
I do not have first-hand knowledge of the other departments, but I have heard many stories of cooperation within faculty working together to adapt their curriculum and class formats.
But to me the greatest success is that students were able to continue receiving a quality education. Even though the College, in many cases, had to offer classes with much lower enrollment than normal, it continued to offer all of our services to students.
SC: What are the challenges for teaching chemistry in a virtual environment? What steps are you doing to help students feel more comfortable in the lecture portion and how are you handling the lab portion?
Dr. Jerome Lavis: The labs were handled differently depending on the courses. For the courses that already had or were in the process of having an online course design, the labs were moved to the student’s home through commercial kits. For the others we kept the labs on campus.
Depending on the course, we either shortened the lab by placing the pre and post labs entirely online, or we extended the class over two classrooms, depending on the occupancy of the lab rooms.
For the lecture, the main challenge to me was not being able to see the students. Because students are most likely in their homes, both the faculty and the college felt it would not be appropriate to require them to reveal their private surrounding. But this creates a rather impersonal setting.
It was not so bad in March last year because we had already spent half the semester together in the classroom, but for last Fall and this Winter it creates a more disconnected setting. I also struggled with whether to record lectures or not. I opted to record them for the benefit of those students who need a job, especially in this environment, or who do not have a quiet home environment during lecture times.
The downside is that attendance is clearly lower and fluctuates greatly from one session to another. The last issue is one common to all online setting, which is academic dishonesty during examinations; it makes us create different exams when one accepts the fact that students have access to their materials, but even then it is not optimal. For my part I decided to hold my exams on campus, in a similar fashion as what the math department did.
SC: You were elected Faculty Forum President last summer. Please explain what that role entails and your goals.
Dr. Jerome Lavis: My role is to serve as the chief representative of the faculty. I work to ensure that our concerns, opinions and expertise are taken into account when decisions at the College are being undertaken. Our work is directly linked to our student’s learning experiences here at Schoolcraft. Improving the working conditions of our faculty is tied to improving the learning environment of our students.
Overall, this means that I work hard to ensure that the College administration and faculty work collaboratively to generate innovative and mindful solutions to the challenges the Colleges faces. In the end we all rise and fall together, and therefore my main goal is to encourage a tradition of co-governance. Maintaining the integrity of our contract is integral to this approach. After all, I believe that it is impossible to achieve our stated mission without meaningfully calling on faculty to contribute to the strategical decisions required to make the College more forward.
SC: You’ve served Schoolcraft College since 2010. Please tell us a little about your background and your career.
Dr. Jerome Lavis: At the beginning … I was born and raised in France in the western suburbs of Paris. When I was in high school deciding on what to do, I hesitated mostly between three possible careers: Becoming a Judge (they are not elected in France), going into the military (air force or navy) or going into the sciences. Both my parents were engineers by formation, and my mother was a high school science Physics and Chemistry teacher.
You could say that the apple did not fall far from the tree. I decided to study sciences, and eventually went into an engineering school for Chemistry rather than the military. The love of chemistry was given to me by my Chemistry college professor, during my freshman year. She was very engaging and knowledgeable, and even though I struggled with the material at times, I knew that it was what I wanted to do.
I eventually went to the ESPCI in Paris, which is the school where Pierre and Marie Curie used to teach a century ago, and then got a Master’s Degree in Organic and Bioorganic Chemistry from the University of Paris VI, and then a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at Michigan State University. It is at MSU that I decided I wanted to teach. Initially my goal was to go work for a pharmaceutical company and do research in drug design, but working as a teaching assistant, I fell in love with teaching. I started my career at the Universite de Montpellier II in France before moving back to Michigan and teaching five years at Grand Valley State University. Finally, I joined the Schoolcraft Faculty in 2010.
SC: Thank you, Dr. Lavis. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Dr. Jerome Lavis: Just that I stand in awe when looking at the adaptability of our students, our faculty and the College as a whole.