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Environmental Science Students Give Virtual Teaching a Try

Climate Change Initiative Hosts Free Zoom Sessions for Middle and High School Students

Students Fiona Benzi, Lucia Cheney and Kseniya Vialichka pose for a selfie Photo by Kseniya Vialichka
Environmental science majors, from left, Fiona Benzi, Lucia Cheney and Kseniya Vialichka led science sessions on Zoom for local middle and high school students.

04/30/2020
By Ed Brennen

Kseniya Vialichka dreams of becoming a college professor someday.

The sophomore environmental science major from Shrewsbury recently got her first taste of teaching when she led an online Zoom session on geology designed for middle and high school students.

Vialichka’s hourlong class was one of four sessions hosted in April by UMass Lowell’s Climate Change Initiative (CCI) — a free series that provided both the “teachers” and students a new way to engage with science while stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.

CCI Director Juliette Rooney-Varga, an associate professor of environmental, earth and atmospheric sciences (EEAS), offered students in her Earth Systems: Biosphere and Global Change class the opportunity to earn extra credit by hosting the Zoom sessions.

Vialichka and two of her friends — fellow sophomore environmental science majors Fiona Benzi and Lucia Cheney — took Rooney-Varga up on the offer.

“I’ve always been interested in teaching, so I jumped at the chance to see if it’s really all that I thought,” says Vialichka, a native of Grodno, Belarus, who moved to the U.S. with her family in 2005. “I think it went really well.”

Vialichka prepared for her one-one-one session with a local eighth-grader by putting together a basic outline (“I like to write everything down; I’m super organized”), but she let the student’s questions guide the lesson. 

“I followed the teaching style of my favorite professor, Kate Swanger, who teaches in a very conversational style that’s open to everybody,” Vialichka says of Swanger, an EEAS associate professor. “I really modeled my lesson after hers.”
A PowerPoint slide of the student presentation
Fiona Benzi and Lucia Cheney put together a 43-page PowerPoint presentation on terrestrial and aquatic biomes for one of their classes.

Benzi and Cheney co-taught two sessions: one on terrestrial and aquatic biomes and another that reviewed material for the Advanced Placement environmental science exam.

“It’s really hard to stay focused right now and keep studying for AP exams, which are still being held. It feels nice to help people,” says Cheney, whose only previous experience teaching kids was in Sunday school at her church in Sharon. 

Benzi, meanwhile, has taught science to kids for the past five summers at a Mass Audubon camp in her hometown of Natick.

“One of the reasons I wanted to become an environmental science major is my experience going to that camp while growing up,” Benzi says. “I absolutely love working there. I find teaching the subject I’m learning about really reinforces my knowledge of it.”

Benzi and Cheney prepared a 43-slide PowerPoint presentation for their session on terrestrial and aquatic biomes, which was attended by a high school junior and an eighth-grader, both from Somerville.

“It was nice to be able to have an interactive conversation with them and answer some questions they had about college,” Benzi says. “I don’t know if I want to go into teaching — I’m personally more interested in research in the long run — but it was fun.”

CCI Program Associate Carolyn McCarthy says more sessions may be offered to students in the future and would be promoted on its Twitter, Facebook and Instagram channels.