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Academically Based Community Service courses are operated out of Penn's Netter Center.

Credit: Emily Xu

With the switch to online learning, Academically Based Community Service courses have adapted their format in order to continue engaging with the local community amid the pandemic. 

ABCS courses, which are run by the Netter Center, typically interact with local public schools in West Philadelphia, communities of faith, and community organizations — offering Penn students and faculty an opportunity to learn by interacting with local students on various projects based on the topic of the class they are taking. 

Before the pandemic, local community members would come to campus or Penn students and faculty would go to the community centers as part of the ABCS portion of their course. But in the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, all aspects of ABCS courses were moved online.

“We’ve managed with most of our ABCS courses to keep the same partners, so connections and partnerships have stayed the same, but the nature of the projects has changed; all engagement is virtual,” Faustine Sun, assistant director at the Netter Center and former ABCS coordinator, said. 

Sun said Netter Center staff and faculty have observed that the community partners are facing trouble.

Many of the ABCS courses have a teaching component in which Penn students tutor students from Robeson High School in West Philadelphia, including courses such as WRIT 138: Community Engaged Writing Theory and Practice which brought Robeson students to campus. On the other hand, courses like BIBB 160: ABCs of Everyday Neuroscience would have Penn students go over to the high school.

“Pre-COVID[-19] was fantastic, it was a great on-campus experience for them hanging out in a college classroom with Penn students and having lunch together,” Valerie Ross, founding director of Penn’s Critical Writing Program said about WRIT 138, which she currently teaches virtually. Ross acknowledged, however, that the switch to the online format has led high school students to struggle with virtual interactions. 

In WRIT 138's new format, Penn students lead Zoom sessions during which high school students are given a piece of writing to analyze, discuss, and then produce their own writing sample, which the Penn students then give feedback on.  

“The high school students are online all day, from morning to night, the same hours as if you were in high school and they get no breaks from this online world,” Ross said, adding that the students also face many interruptions during these class times due to studying from home. “It’s remarkable that they’re taking this additional course with us. But many of them don’t have their screens on anymore; they say they just can’t stand to have their face seen, to see themselves or to see others."

Similarly, associate professor of Psychology Loretta Flanagan-Cato said her experience teaching BIBB 160, which, pre-pandemic, had Penn students visit Robeson High School once a week to teach neuroscience to the students through hands-on biology lab activities, has come with struggles. 

“Starting in September, it was logistically difficult to get any kind of supplies to the high school students, so we were able to innovate and come up with things that they could do in their home without necessarily having any supplies," Flanagan-Cato said. “It turns out that some things that we normally do, we could just find a way to still do, even though we were virtual.” 

Flanagan-Cato said that after the virtual switch, Penn students came up with a broad range of activities for the Robeson students, from using an online software to make artistic renderings of organelles and cell biology, to teaching the kids how to test their own knee-jerk reflexes. The downsides were still felt by some students, however.

Natalie Doppelt, a College junior enrolled in BIBB 160 this semester, felt that the online format was disappointing because it hindered her ability to cater to her students' needs. She added that students in the course were less engaged in the one-hour Zoom calls, which made it harder for Penn students to develop interpersonal connections with the Robeson students. 

But the online format has had its upsides too, Doppelt said, as she thinks it has taught Penn students to be more flexible. 

“Because we're virtual, we've been forced to learn how to be creative and how to be adaptable and have really started to explore cool online programs," Doppelt said. "So I think the labs are actually more unique than they usually are, and [they] open the horizons to creative ways of teaching and being flexible based on our students' needs.”

Sun added that she thinks the biggest upside of going virtual has been an added ease in scheduling for Penn students, who she said usually spend a lot of time traveling to the site with varying traffic and SEPTA schedules.  

“Now, it’s so much easier for the ABCS Penn students to just log on and immediately start engaging,” Sun said, adding that it has also been more convenient for teachers, partners, and guest speakers to engage with the Penn students, too, as their travel time and effort has also been cut.

Looking forward to the fall 2021 semester, Sun said that ABCS courses expect a return to in-person engagement with the community, especially with Penn's expectation to return to in-person teaching and the vaccination requirement for all students. Sun added in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the Netter Center is consulting with the ABCS community partners to take into account their level of comfort and expectations regarding potential in-person engagement.

Sun also predicted that Zoom will continue to be incorporated into these classes’ format in two crucial ways: easing the process of clearance checks for Penn students and making it easier for guest speakers to come to class. 

In order for Penn students to work with these high school students who are minors, the state of Pennsylvania requires them to go through three clearance checks: Pennsylvania child abuse history clearance, Pennsylvania police criminal background check, and FBI fingerprint criminal background check. While the Netter Center offers these clearance checks free of cost to students who take these ABCS courses, Sun said this process has been smoother online, as students were able to get cleared in larger batches than previously were done in person.

"I think we will definitely keep some of the pros that have come out of the more creative ways of doing things that have been effective during the pandemic," Sun said.