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Labs, theaters and classrooms come to life as in-person learning resumes
Junior Marla Lopez performs in Sonnets for an Old Century, which was acted out in front of a small live audience and streamed online.

Labs, theaters and classrooms come to life as in-person learning resumes

June 25, 2021 at 11:30am

The last time vocal jazz performance major Isabella Rodriguez sang in a group was on March 19, 2020, before the COVID-19 lockdowns. For a year, the junior learned music at home and sang without an accompaniment to an audience of one—a computer.

Now she stood with eight other singers from the School of Music jazz ensemble—people she had met only on Zoom. The group's voices melted together as a pianist provided the tempo. When the choir finished, an audience of students cheered. 

“It was super emotional,” Rodriguez said of her first music practice back on campus. “When you’re singing, or just playing in general, there's an energy you share.” 

Across the university, Panthers are returning to in-person learning environments that are natural to their growth. In Spring 2021, there were 2,131 classes fully in-person. In Fall 2021, university leadership expects more than 5,000 classes—a return to pre-pandemic numbers. Provost and Executive Vice President Kenneth G. Furton announced in June that more than 40,000 students would be taking classes over the summer.

“We are extremely excited that we have transitioned to pre-COVID-19 capacities. Our students will now be able to fully engage in their innovative discoveries,” Furton said.

Freshmen and sophomores who began during the pandemic are getting their first real taste for academic life on campus. Humanities major Melissa Bernardo was energized after leaving her summer class, Intro to Religion.

"As a freshman, I'm not really acquainted with anything, but I'm really hopeful that I'll grow here as a student and a person. My class is a great way to get familiar with the campus because it's a class I'm really interested in."

Learning in-person is a gift, students are saying, whether you are a singer or a scientist. 

Back in the lab 

Brian Ng—a Ph.D. student for the CREST Center for Aquatic Chemistry and Environment—is responsible for analyzing water samples from around the United States for the presence of pesticides, pharmaceutical compounds, sucralose and other manmade chemicals.  

When the pandemic struck, there were challenges. 

“We cannot do sample preparation [at home]. These types of things, you have to do it in person,” said Ng, whose work uses a sensitive instrument that measures compounds and chemicals at the parts-per-trillion level.  

Ng was able to return to research during the spring semester. Now he is completing his dissertation project— combing through hundreds of water samples sent to him from around Florida looking for the presence of harmful chemicals. Clients depend on his work to understand what is in their water.

“There would be no way this would be possible if I wasn’t allowed back on campus during COVID-19. It was crucial to get research going,” Ng said. 

Undergraduates are also back to in-person research, giving them precious learning opportunities. 

Professor Danielle Ogurcak is a faculty mentor who with students analyzes coastal ecosystems that have been hydrologically modified. Working with undergrads in person is essential, she says; because for many of them, it is their first time working in a lab.

"The one-on-one with an undergrad who is interested in the work you're doing is so important," said Ogurcak. "Using the instruments, learning how to go through the scientific process, going through the logistics of planning a research project—these are things students need to do in person. These kinds of experiences prepare them as early scientists."

Return to the spotlight 

The transition back to in-person learning is also playing an important role in keeping students’ skills sharp as they progress in their studies.  

Theatre students have been able to have a holistic theatre education through a combination of remote work and in-person activities. From their virtual stations, they took courses on acting, movement and makeup. Slowly they were welcomed back with masks and could take on physically distanced activities like woodworking. And finally, in the spring semester, students got to participate in a play—Sonnets for an Old Century. 

“It was really like the closest to normal I felt in a really long time,” said Marla Lopez, a junior performance major. 

Her rehearsals for Sonnets for an Old Century were all virtual, but the play was performed in-person at FIU’s black box theatre to a small audience. 

“I took my mask off, and I felt so conscious of how I was moving,” Lopez said. “I was grateful to be performing, but it was a little strange. I was just thrilled to even be there.” 

With her performance muscles flexed, Lopez welcomes what is ahead.

“I’m beyond excited for the productions we’re going to do next semester."