UW News

April 16, 2020

‘Hands-on’ classes online? How some instructors are adapting to a new teaching environment

UW News

A TA preparing a kit to send home to students

Suvesha Chandrasekaran, a TA for the Introduction to Engineering Design course, prepares kits containing supplies to help students complete lab assignments from home.Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Every spring, Laura Prugh teaches a wildlife research techniques class at the University of Washington. Her students spend much of their time outside, complementing their lecture notes with actual experience. They learn to identify and properly handle animals — frogs, salamanders and bushy-tailed woodrats, for example — and they practice using equipment for tracking animals and estimating populations.

A person with binoculars

Every spring, Laura Prugh teaches a wildlife research techniques class where students learn to identify animals and practice using equipment for tracking animals and estimating populations. Here Prugh is birding in her neighborhood.Evelyn Rousmaniere

But when the UW announced it was moving its spring quarter 2020 classes entirely online to combat the novel coronavirus, Prugh and other instructors across campus faced a new, uncharted challenge.

“During our faculty meeting on Zoom to discuss what to do with field courses, I burst into tears, much to my surprise,” said Prugh, an associate professor of environmental and forest sciences. “I love teaching this course. It’s great getting the students out into the field and getting to know them really well.”

Prugh initially considered canceling the class, which is a requirement for some students majoring in environmental sciences and resource management.

“I had to go through a mourning period before I could readjust my expectations and accept that the students are going to need to learn about some of the techniques just in the lecture component,” Prugh said. “But then maybe we can come up with a plan for the rest of the content.”

Prugh decided to mail each enrolled student a kit that includes a camera trap, an acoustic recorder, a compass and binoculars. Students will use their kits to complete independent research projects from home. The class will also participate in timely citizen-science projects that aim to understand how stay-at-home orders across the world have affected urban wildlife.

Contents of a kit on a table

Laura Prugh mailed each enrolled student a kit containing a camera trap (shown here in a camouflage lockbox), a python cable lock to lock the camera to a tree, an Audiomoth acoustic recorder, a pair of binoculars, a compass and a ziplock bag with other items such as batteries, SD cards, a card reader and usb connecting cable. Prugh included return mailers in each box so that students can easily return the equipment at the end of the quarter.Laura Prugh/University of Washington

Prugh wasn’t the only instructor who initially felt their stomach drop when the UW announced the switch to remote instruction. Professors and lecturers across the university take pride in providing hands-on opportunities for their students, but also felt reluctant to outright cancel their courses this quarter, often citing graduation or major requirements.

Of the approximately 7,000 courses the UW typically offers across its three campuses during spring quarter, about 400 have been canceled two weeks into the quarter — many of which were one-on-one instruction and practical training, according to Philip Reid, UW’s vice provost for academic and student affairs. In addition, about 200 classes were added to spring quarter and the enrollment caps were increased in an effort to limit impacts to student academic progress.

See how one instructor moved his lab class online

UW instructors have taken a variety of approaches to give students as close to an in-person experience as possible. Like Prugh, many have figured out ways for students to be hands on at home. But others took different approaches — such as using online platforms to promote student engagement or having students analyze datasets from a previous quarter.

Student enrollment also remains high. As of the start of the quarter, 52,845 students were registered for at least one course, compared to 51,884 students last spring. Two weeks into the quarter, about 930 students had withdrawn, compared to 600 at the same time last spring — a difference of about 330.

“It’s heartening that even in this unprecedented time, we still see the resiliency of our community through our innovative instructors and our students who are eager to learn,” Reid said.

Labs at home

In the move to online courses, many instructors joined Prugh in devising ways to shift in-class projects to activities students can do at home.

A student in a lab watching a bike wheel on a track

During fall quarter, students in Brian Johnson’s e-bike class designed and built a circuit board that could supply power to an e-bike. Shown here Cole Ballard tests a power circuit during lab in fall quarter.Ryan Hoover/University of Washington

Brian Johnson, a UW assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been restructuring a power electronics course into a year-long series of classes where students design and build electric bikes. This school year was the first full run of the sequence. In fall 2019, students designed the electronics necessary to power an e-bike. Then, over winter quarter, they shifted gears to develop the code that would regulate the system. Spring quarter was supposed to be the “Tour de France,” where the students put the pieces together to power and control actual e-bikes that they would race at the end of the quarter.

“I did my best to distill everything into something they can build at home,” Johnson said. “Instead of using a battery to power an e-bike motor, their circuits will transfer energy from a small power supply to resistors which will warm up slightly. It will be a great learning experience and it will require students to carefully plan their builds.”

Introduction to Engineering Design is a hands-on course where students learn how to go from thinking of an idea to actually building something. This class normally takes place in the MILL makerspace so that students learn how to use tools such as laser cutters, 3D printers and soldering equipment. This quarter, students will build devices — a “smart” lamp that can turn on depending on the time of day, for example — using materials in kits that the instructors are sending home. Then students will use software to design and model updated versions. Shown here are TAs for this course, Suvesha Chandrasekaran, brown shirt, and Gorkem Caylak, preparing kits to be packaged and shipped to students. Credit: Dennis Wise/University of Washington

Instructors from other College of Engineering courses are having their students complete lab work at home as well. After modifying experiments so that they would be safe to perform at home, instructors prepared and sent more than 300 kits for six different courses to students across the state — including to Spokane, Yakima, Bellingham, Chehalis and Aberdeen — and around the globe to students in China, India, Uganda and Brazil, among other countries.

In the College of the Environment, Jonathan Bakker, an UW professor of environmental and forest sciences, sent kits — including seeds, pots and media — to students so they can grow plants at home for his Native Plant Production course. This course also normally involves tours of local nurseries. This quarter, Bakker has invited nurseries around the state and the country to give virtual tours to the students.

Virtual options abound

Other instructors across the UW are taking advantage of the plethora of virtual options to try to make their previously hands-on courses more engaging.

Terry Swanson, a principal lecturer in Earth and space sciences, teaches Introduction to Geology and Societal Impacts, a course for mostly nonscience majors. Swanson’s class typically includes labs, field trips and movie nights in addition to a lecture component.

“This quarter, the difficult thing is trying to bring the excitement of the class —  the rocks and the hands-on, tactile feel of this — through a screen,” Swanson said.

Swanson has opted to livestream his lectures on both Twitch and Zoom, saying that students learn better when he can appear more human on camera, sometimes correcting himself if he makes a mistake live.

The class still “gathers” for movie nights, too, though this year they watched “Chasing Ice” on Zoom instead of in Kane Hall. Swanson plans to take the students on virtual field trips across the state, using an assortment of cameras to allow him to focus on the fine-grain details he wants his students to pay attention to.

Julian Yamaura, a lecturer in civil and environmental engineering, is teaching a construction materials class this quarter. This class has a major lab component so Yamaura is filming video modules that students can watch and then discuss in an interactive Zoom class each week. This week, Yamaura is filming how to make concrete. In one of the videos, Yamaura is including mistakes that students may encounter on real job sites after they graduate.
Credit: Kiyomi Taguchi/University of Washington

Despite a variety of tools available for moving classes online, professors and lecturers have to be thoughtful about what their students have access to, instructors said. Sara Gonzalez, an associate professor of anthropology, is teaching a contemporary archeology course, which was supposed to have field trips around the UW and city of Seattle. Gonzalez has shifted it to a course where students will be engaging with each other and archeologists around the world through a class Twitter account, a class hashtag and public blog posts.

“One of the initial reasons I was hesitant to move online is our students face a digital divide: I see a lot of students relying on using only their cellphones to access our course Canvas pages or to complete their work,” Gonzalez said. “I think this approach of using several different platforms gives everyone an opportunity to be able to engage regardless of whether or not they can download huge files. It’s as easy as using their cellphone to check in on the class Twitter feed and see what’s happening for the class.”

Learning from the past

Virtual tools, however helpful for keeping students engaged, can still fall short of replacing the full experience that many UW classes aim to offer.

“Nothing out there is going to give you the same hands-on experience as being in a general chemistry lab,” said Andrea Carroll, a senior lecturer of chemistry. “Performing dilutions, trying to figure out how some of the glassware and instrumentation work, and making some of those typical mistakes students make — that piece is going to be gone when the courses are moved online.”

Regardless, Carroll and the general chemistry team will continue teaching labs this quarter. TAs will develop a “tour” of each lab activity that walks students through the entire procedure — from a full explanation of lab safety to photos and videos of each of the steps, and what students would see if they were performing their own experiment.

Then students will receive a dataset from previous quarter’s version of the lab to work through their lab report assignments.

“It’s all real data,” Carroll said. “Some of it will have common errors that people often see in these experiments, and these students will have to explain what might have happened. We’ve tried to keep this as realistic as possible.”

While instructors across the UW expressed relief and pride at being able to transition their classes online for this quarter, they’re already looking forward to future quarters when they can hold their classes in person again. Many instructors are using this time as an opportunity to find new ways to enhance their in-person classes. For example, Gonzalez has always been interested in having her students engage with a larger public audience around issues of archeology’s relevance — in this case, she decided to try using Twitter.

“Right now is the perfect opportunity to be able to demonstrate the importance of public scholarship to my students while also creating an online community for them,” Gonzalez said. “The saddest part of not being able to meet in class is that we miss out in a lot of community building. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t be creative and find community in other spaces.”