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Physics, astronomy faculty are ready for classes to resume online

| Judy Berthiaume

When Dr. Kim Pierson learned that faculty and staff had three weeks to move all their classes — including labs — online because of COVID-19, he was struggling to see how he could possibly make that work.

After all, the UW-Eau Claire physics professor’s classes and labs are built around student-faculty collaboration and engagement, things he feared would be lost in a virtual world.

A colleague’s tip about Collaborate Ultra, an online tool that allows teachers to create virtual classrooms so they can interact with students in real time, was a game-changer for him, Pierson says.

“At first, I was very worried that I was going to be completely overwhelmed, and secretly wishing I had retired last year,” Pierson says of transitioning to the online format mid-semester. “Now, I’m very optimistic that I can do this and that the experience will actually make me a better teacher. When you have been teaching something for years, you forget what it was like to learn it for the first time. I now get to experience that again in three classes.

“Like most teachers, I actually love learning new things and especially, for me, when it comes to new technology and software applications. Now, I’m excited about running and jumping off the cliff, and learning to fly on my way down.”

That kind of positive and creative thinking is typical of faculty and staff throughout their department, which is why he is confident that Blugolds will continue to thrive despite having to now navigate a new learning environment, says Dr. Erik Hendrickson, a professor of physics and chair of UW-Eau Claire’s physics and astronomy department.

After a three-week break, UW-Eau Claire classes resume April 6 online because of COVID-19. The online format will continue at least through the spring semester.

“Yes, this is a very challenging time, but our faculty and staff are working hard to provide our students with the best education possible under these difficult circumstances,” Hendrickson says. “People are sharing their ideas with each other, encouraging each other to try new things, critiquing each other’s ideas to improve them, and just trying to help everyone survive these extraordinary times. It is amazing.”

While faculty and staff are sharing ideas, tools and strategies, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to how to best support student learning in the campus’s new all-virtual world, Hendrickson says. Every educator is determining what will work best for their courses and labs, which means some instructors, like Pierson, will use new online tools while others, like Dr. Scott Whitfield, will share videos that feature him giving lectures and using the whiteboards in classrooms in Phillips Science Hall.

“We also have groups of people who teach multiple lab sections together,” Hendrickson says. “They have worked together in small groups, along with our amazing instrumentation specialist Turner Howard, to create videos of people doing the labs, taking the data, creating new worksheets and analysis questions, and coming up with options on how the students will submit their work.

“These and other collaborations in our department have been outstanding. I am super proud of what these fantastic educators have created. Everyone has contributed to this effort.”

The cooperative spirit in the department is so strong that even a student who had previously taken his class came forward with an idea for how he could keep current students in his electronics class engaged in hands-on learning while away from campus, Pierson says.

She suggested that Pierson have students in the class take home a robot, a learning tool he typically only uses at the end of the semester.

“It was a great idea,” Pierson says. “So, they’ve all been doing robot programming experiments for three weeks at home while waiting for classes to start again. I plan to create more robot exercises for them to do as the semester progresses.”

Creating those kinds of hands-on learning opportunities will help students continue to learn and develop important skills despite being away from campus for half the semester, Pierson says.

“It is vital that they continue to develop the myriad of knowledge and self-confidence skills that occur in a real lab setting and the process I’ve planned gets them as far along that path as I can go,” Pierson says.

The physics and astronomy department is fortunate that some of its faculty and staff already had experience creating online courses and teaching in virtual settings, Hendrickson says, noting that those with experience shared tips with their colleagues about what did and did not work for them.

Four years ago, Dr. Lyle Ford, professor of physics, and Howard created an online Summer Session version of Physics 100, including its lab component.

The summer class demonstrates that it is possible to successfully teach a physics class and lab online, though there are plenty of challenges to work through, Ford says.

“For example, the lab part was a big challenge for us,” Ford says. “I wanted to minimize the cost to students, so we developed a lab kit that includes nearly all the materials students need for the lab aside from a few items like batteries and a timer. Turner did an amazing job adapting the equipment we do have and finding reliable and inexpensive items that we did not have on hand.”

Students check the lab kits out from the bookstore like they do with textbooks, making it affordable and convenient, he says.

While some students in the summer class say they miss being in a lab with their peers, Ford has found that the students taking the class online do perform as well on exams as students enrolled in the in-person classes. So, students are learning the content in both the classroom and virtual settings, he says.

“The big things I have taken away from the online course is that we can still effectively deliver the content we want, but we have to adapt,” Ford says. “If we try to make the experience just like the lecture, it will likely fail because the online environment is not the same as the classroom.”

The format they created for Physics 100 online works well because the course content is conceptual physics, and the items required in the lab are relatively simple and inexpensive, Howard says.

So, while there is much to learn from the existing online class and lab, faculty and staff cannot simply replicate it for other courses and labs, Howard says.

“The current situation, delivering lab content mid-semester for upper level lab courses, is entirely different and more challenging,” Howard says. “We have nothing prepared that we can just ship out the door.

“Instead, we are attempting to bring the lab to the students by creating video recordings of the lab procedures and making it possible for them to still work with real data and complete the analysis portions of the lab.”

While a critical part of the lab experience is lost without the in-person interaction, there is still great value for students who watch a procedure performed in the actual lab setting and work through the analysis at home, Howard says.

“The one advantage that we do have is that we were able to deliver about half of the lab content in person, so the students got to know their instructors and have some familiarity with the lab room and typical equipment used,” Howard says. “That possibly makes some of the video content more relatable.”

While faculty have worked hard to reformat courses and labs, they could not have done it so well and in such a short amount of time without Howard’s expertise, says Dr. Lauren Likkel, professor of astronomy.

“Turner has jumped in to help out everyone that he could help,” Likkel says. “He immediately ordered equipment we might need for filming class material. While we were wondering how in the world to make an online physics lab, he immediately suggested that he could make short videos for us and be the ‘lab partner’ who could perform the experiment.

“He has helped with almost all of our labs, getting footage with the instructor or on his own. He edits the video clips with appropriate transitions and any re-arranging needed. I worked with him on videotaping two labs, and he did one on his own after I could no longer come to campus. He also suggests specific modifications for how we can revise the labs to make them run as online labs.”

Howard also served as the department’s liaison with Learning and Technology Services, ensuring that physics and astronomy majors can remotely access department computers with dedicated programs while also helping faculty solve a variety of technology-related issues.

“Without Turner’s help, we would not be as well prepared for classes to resume, and the quality of our online lab videos would not be as high,” Likkel says.

Ford agrees, noting that it has been rewarding to see all faculty and staff in his department come together to make the best of an extraordinarily difficult situation.

“Our colleagues have done an amazing job coming up with viable plans to suit each course's particular needs,” Ford says. “It is inspiring to work in a department with such creative and motivated people.”

While online classes are just beginning, Pierson says he is already hearing positive comments from students, especially about the Collaborate Ultra teaching tool, which allows him to run a synchronous class and also to save videos so students who cannot attend in real time can view them later.

“I’ve tried it in all three of my classes already and it works great,” says Pierson, adding that he also will use it for virtual offices hours. “During the first three sessions, students helped me learn new features in the program as I was teaching — they are very savvy when it comes to figuring out how to use new apps.”

It is ironic, Pierson says, that he is in a situation that requires him to learn new technologies in the middle of a semester since that’s something he often requires of his students.

“Every spring, I figuratively throw my electronics students in the ‘deep end of the pool’ with respect to a new piece of software that they haven’t seen before,” Pierson says. “I make them start using it the first lab period and they struggle.

“I tell them that this is what will happen to them when they start working in industry, so I am helping them learn to adapt. Well, the shoe is now on the other foot.”

Photo caption: Faculty and staff in physics and astronomy say they are confident that they can provide quality classes and labs to their students in the new online format.