Bridging the distance

When the UW returns to in-person learning this fall, faculty will bring with them the creative methods developed while teaching remotely — even in courses that are typically hands-on.

In March 2020, when COVID-19 put an end to most in-person learning, UW faculty had to get creative. How do you put on a play when actors are confined to their own apartments? Teach furniture design when students can’t use the shop? Show students how to mix concrete online?

As the UW prepares for a safe return to in-person learning this fall, we celebrate our Husky community: The innovative UW faculty who worked hard over the past year to ensure that their students could continue to grow and learn. The resilient students who adjusted to a drastically different learning environment. And all who worked together to redefine what is possible in a world of physical distance — and digital connection.

Kimo Griggs
Associate Professor
College of Built Environments

Broadcasting to his students from a tripod-mounted iPhone, Griggs puts together a piece of furniture in a shop that’s much quieter than usual.

In a normal year, students in architect Kimo Griggs’ annual Scan|Design Master Studio course would design and build their own furniture on campus — and travel to Copenhagen to study Denmark’s iconic design style. Griggs was disappointed to have to move the course online, but he also saw an opportunity to more closely model the class on the way design practice works today. Griggs and his UW colleagues Penny Maulden and Steve Withycombe acted as vendors, building the furniture that students designed. Students learned how professionals design products from their offices — including working with vendors across distance to bring their designs to life. And when the pandemic is over and it’s safe to travel again? Griggs has promised students who can make it that he’ll take them to Denmark.

Rania Hussein
Assistant Teaching Professor
Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering

Hussein assembles hardware that her students — and others from around the world — could access remotely.

Rania Hussein had a dilemma: The 60 students in her Design of Digital Circuits and Systems course would need access to materials they’d normally use in an in-person lab. She knew the UW wasn’t alone in facing this problem — so Hussein partnered with educators at universities in Michigan, Malaysia, Spain and Brazil to create a distributed remote circuit board lab. Thanks to this collaboration, students at any of the participating universities could remotely access hardware located at any of the other institutions. Hussein’s approach was centered on equity: “I wanted students to continue designing and testing circuits after the class ended and develop their technical skills equitably, without having to return borrowed kits or purchase expensive hardware.”

Ian Schnee
Associate Teaching Professor
Department of Philosophy

Schnee used technology to enhance his philosophy classes before the pandemic began — and to keep his lessons engaging in an all-remote environment.

Ian Schnee had embraced the potential of technology in the classroom long before the pandemic began. Software like Poll Everywhere, Schnee’s own interactive e-book and evidence-based teaching practices all led to an engaging and energetic classroom — and to his being honored with the UW’s 2020 Distinguished Teaching Award. The pandemic saw Schnee streaming his logic courses from an empty Kane Hall. It wasn’t the same as being with his students in person, but his innovative teaching methods helped make the transition to all-remote learning a little less rocky.

Libby King
Assistant Professor
School of Drama

The (virtual) curtain is up at the Jones Playhouse, where a technical crew uses 21 computers and a projector to stream “So Far So Good” live on YouTube.

Normally, a dramatic performance is a distinctly in-person experience for everyone involved: actors, directors, tech crew, audience. So how could director Libby King and 11 actors, all graduate students in the UW’s Professional Actor Training Program, pull off a theatrical production in a pandemic? Luckily, King had experience creating theater that pushes boundaries. Over weeks of writing prompts and discussions, the actors co-developed the production. They worked with a set designer to get their individual performance spaces — in their own homes — just right. And then, with a team of technical staff coordinating feeds from all those locations, the School of Drama presented the original play “So Far So Good” live — and online.

Curt Labitzke
Associate Professor
School of Art + Art History + Design

Seen through his webcam, Labitzke leads students in a printmaking exercise.

giphy of hand making a print

Curt Labitzke, longtime chair of the UW’s Printmaking Program, tailored his printmaking course to the pandemic. He gave his students an easily digestible syllabus and shipped them bare-bones toolkits. Though he has a professional studio, Labitzke taught from his kitchen to make sure the process was accessible — and to appreciate the living spaces where his students created their own art. Whether majoring in art or mechanical engineering, students finished the class having learned about printmaking — and about themselves. Or, as Labitzke put it, “These images … come from what you love, and who you are, and what you do. And that’s what art is.”

Julian Yamaura
Assistant Teaching Professor
Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering

Yamaura explains how to test the strength of a concrete beam sample.

In Julian Yamaura’s course on construction materials, students usually get hands-on learning about the properties and behaviors of substances like wood and concrete. Faced with the challenge of creating online versions of in-person labs, Yamaura produced video demonstrations that included deliberate errors for students to find and discuss how to fix. “I figured this might be a great opportunity for the students to supervise me,” says Yamaura, who knows that when they graduate, if his students aren’t handling materials themselves, they might be supervising others who are. He’s invited students to visit his lab and make concrete cylinder samples — a rite of passage for those studying civil engineering — as soon as in-person instruction resumes.

Timothy Salzman
School of Music

When Salzman couldn’t lead the UW Wind Ensemble in person, as he’s pictured doing here in 2019, he embraced the opportunity to teach his students more about improvisation and composition.


Brian Schappals, Wind Ensemble Spring 2020 Team Mix — Brood
Bridget Long, Wind Ensemble Spring 2020 Team Mix — Entropy

When UW Wind Ensemble Conductor Timothy Salzman realized he’d be teaching remotely, he had to quickly change his approach. Salzman’s Wind Ensemble course, normally performance-based, would instead focus on improvisation and composition. “Improvisation experience makes you a more poised and flexible performer,” Salzman says. “And understanding composition helps you think about form and intention in music in a way you don’t necessarily do when playing your single line on your instrument in an ensemble.” Students recorded short improvisations, then worked remotely in small teams to combine and modify their recordings using readily available mixing software. Seven successful U.S. composers joined as online guest speakers, sharing about their professional journeys, deepening students’ understanding of composition and preparing them to chart their own paths in the field.

Laura Prugh
Associate Professor
School of Environmental &
Forest Sciences

After a year of remote learning, Prugh (left) and her students can finally wander wetland trails in Union Bay Natural Area, where her lectures come to life through the animals they see.

Laura Prugh’s Wildlife Research Techniques class teaches students how to identify animal species and collect data — in the wild. Though this year the class couldn’t travel to the Olympic Peninsula to study unique amphibians like giant salamanders, as they have in the past, Prugh found wildlife for students to study in natural areas just a short walk from campus. While much of the course was still held online, Prugh’s outdoor lab tied everything together — preparing students for careers working with wildlife by teaching them how to identify species, use tracking equipment and estimate animal populations. Walking the trails of Union Bay Natural Area, students pointed out pied-billed grebes and red-eared sliders, and they listened closely to the red-breasted nuthatches and yellow-rumped warblers in the cottonwoods above. After months of isolation, a trip to wetlands just down the road from campus felt like a true expedition.

Looking forward

For more than a year, we have endured great hardship: loss, illness, stress and physical isolation from the people and communities we hold dear. While the UW community looks forward to a safe return to campus in the fall, this difficult period has led to innovative ways of teaching and learning that we’ll take with us into the future.

Orla Budge, ’21, and Annika McFeely, ’22, scan the landscape for animals in Union Bay Natural Area.

Photography by Dennis Wise, Ryan Hoover, Marcos Everstijn, Jackie Russo, David Marksbury and Mark Stone. Each photograph was taken following the appropriate safety protocols at the time.