After news that summer, fall and eventually winter quarters are mostly to be conducted virtually, many instructors within the College of the Environment found themselves forced to write new lesson plans, while also becoming proficient with an array of new technology quickly. Not only did they have to teach, but in many cases they also had to be a tech wizard to facilitate remote lab work and deliver engaging lectures over a computer screen. 

Let’s take a look at three different ways instructors from UW Environment have restructured their classes to accommodate for these changes, and how in-person classes are able to meet in a socially-distanced manner.

Learning at the Speed of Lightboards

To assist with this massive pivot, the Department of Atmospheric Sciences shop manufactured three lightboards to be shared by instructors in the hope that they will engage students during virtual lecture classes. Lightboards sound like something out of Star Wars, both futuristic and attention grabbing, and that is exactly what they are. Lightboards take the place of a white board that an instructor would write on in a traditional lecture, but are designed for prerecorded lectures and teaching remotely. Lightboard sessions look like a Zoom meeting where the instructor is magically writing in space, allowing students to see every stroke while the instructor writes. That close-up detail enables the instructor to draw attention to specific items, all while being  “face-to-face” with the students in an imaginary interface where words magically appear.

“In an early quarter survey, students were saying how engaging all the lectures were in comparison to all of their other courses,” says lightboard user and Aquatic and Fishery Sciences Professor Tim Essington. “The science that has looked at lightboards says that students find the overall experience to be more positive, and my students have really responded well to this interactive and dynamic way of teaching.” 

Essington’s class, named Introduction to Ecological Modeling, is a good course to pilot this style of teaching as a quantitative and computer-based course which naturally lends itself well to remote learning. Combining lightboards and the idea of a “flipped classroom”, where the lecture itself is pre-recorded and students are expected to watch it ahead of class time, allows for classes to become more interactive. Zoom meetings typically used as a time for lectures are now used for application of material, resulting in more hands-on, dynamic learning that is engaging for both the students and the teacher. As lecture meetings move away from the traditional model of an instructor lecturing the entire time, the distinction between lecture and lab has been diminishing as labs become increasingly integrated with lecture, promoting more active learning. 

Essington utilizes lightboards to film a six-minute lecture on a specific topic, then slowly fills out the blank screen and builds conceptual models with students. By breaking down lectures into smaller chunks, students are able to stay engaged throughout the class time. “It is so much more fun to give a lecture in a lightboard studio because it retains that thrill of lecture that is missing when you’re lecturing from a home office. That excitement and enthusiasm is detectable by the students, and being able to use a lightboard is just an added bonus,” says Essington. 

In-Person Learning at Friday Harbor Labs

While most classes like Essington’s are happening remotely, Friday Harbor Laboratories (FHL) in the San Juan Islands is offering one of the very rare opportunities for 100% in-person courses at UW. The opportunity is enticing to students, and FHL is seeing a fall cohort that is more than two times bigger than usual.

In order to participate, students agreed to adhere to strict guidelines to keep themselves and others safe. All students are required to quarantine before heading up to the islands, and once there, are required to quarantine again for a week with their “pod,” along with getting several tests for the coronavirus. Once out of the quarantine period, students continue to follow protocols to remain as safe as possible. The students even spent the Thanksgiving holiday in Friday Harbor to ensure the safety of their fellow students as well as the faculty and staff working at FHL. 

“The selection process students go through means that we have absolutely astonishing students,” says FHL Professor Adam Summers. “These are the students who are absolutely certain that the reason they’re in a university is to study marine biology, and are able to build incredibly tight bonds together and have such a vested interest in learning.”

By following stringent rules, FHL instruction has largely remained the same. Instructors conduct in-person labs, although physical distancing is practiced. Students conduct numerous field experiments where social distancing can also be observed, allowing the rich tradition of a hands-on class to continue. Every student even volunteered to wake up at 1:00 a.m. to observe tide pools when they are the most accessible and exposed!

“I feel like it’s made a difference to be very frank about what’s at stake for us and for them—the ability to attend one of the very few in person experiences in the country is in their hands and they’ve taken it very seriously,” says Summers. “They are making real sacrifices to be here and should be recognized for their commitment to learning.” 

Learning Online and In-Lab

The College of the Environment has held completely virtual courses and completely in-person courses, but is there some sort of hybrid course?

Chelsea Wood’s Parasite Ecology course, offered through the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, is a hybrid course with virtual lectures and an optional in-person lab component. Students need to come face-to-face with parasites at some point during the quarter in order to fully understand parasites. With the summer break to rethink and rework this course, Wood shifted the syllabus so that most labs are done at home; she has either adapted existing labs or invented new labs to allow for maximum COVID-19 safety. 

Students participate in a socially-distanced in-person lab.
Students participate in a socially-distanced, in-person lab.

“Most of the students have grown up in the developed world, which means they have never laid eyes on a parasite in their whole lives,” says Wood. “That’s both a challenge and an opportunity – it’s a challenge because there’s a lot of ground to cover, but an opportunity because everything you tell them about parasites blows their minds. They have no background in parasites at all, so it doesn’t take much effort on my part to create those ‘wow’ moments.”

Anyone, really, can become a parasite ecologist from the comfort of their own homes. A few weeks ago, Parasite Ecology students went to fish markets, picked out their own fish, dissected them and studied the parasites they found under a USB microscope, finding things they would normally see in a parasitological dissection. But involving students from the very beginning of the experiment—like having them choose their own fish—allows students to feel more ownership over the whole process. 

Parasites that are too dangerous, too gross, or that contain human pathogens and need to be held in biosafety confinement will still be examined in the lab on campus, but students experience the same awe and excitement when dissecting fish from the supermarket in their own kitchens or living rooms. For the students who are uncomfortable or unable to attend the in-person lab sections, professionally-shot videos are available on the class website for students to view at their own pace. For full, virtual immersion in labs, the videos are shot with a 360-degree Virtual Reality camera so that the students can get as close to the in-person lab as possible. 

Students are responding well to changes in the way the class is structured. “We’ve had higher enrollment in this class than ever before—so much so that we had to raise the enrollment cap to accommodate the extra interest. I do think there’s a lot of desire to attend classes in person and to form a cohort, so I wanted to offer at least the option to attend in-person labs. Plus, it’s not possible to teach about parasites without actual parasites,” says Wood.

As far as the lecture portion of the class goes, Wood has also taken on the flipped classroom model, where lectures are watched before meeting and time spent on Zoom is used for discussion and working together. Wood has noticed that this way of teaching contributes to a much deeper understanding of course concepts, and will retain that flipped classroom model for the future. 

Although instructors were abruptly forced to completely rethink or build classes from the ground up, innovation within UW Environment has opened up new opportunities for student instruction. The flipped classroom model has proven to be successful in a course that is heavily computer-based as well as in an ecology course that is more hands-on. These instructors have proved that change can be exciting, and a pandemic can create an opportunity to think about the future of instruction.