Faculty use technology and creativity in virtual classrooms

It’s an understatement to say that this term has been challenging for Portland State students, faculty and staff. 

But there have been bright spots, too. Whether it be through a surprise Zoom drop-in by alum Ian Karmela music video featuring 24 jazz musicians recording themselves from home or an expansion of speech therapy telehealth services, the PSU community continues to embody its spirit of innovation. 

Innovation is particularly present in the virtual classroom where faculty who had planned to teach in-person courses have had to reconceptualize their classes in a matter of weeks, finding new teaching methods to make remote learning effective and enriching. 

Physical places to digital spaces

Over the past few years, Aaron Whelton’s Advanced Architectural Graphics and Media course has focused on the connection between digital design and the production of physical artifacts.

In previous terms, students in this course used techniques like 3D printing and bronze casting. 

“That's all gone out the window," says Whelton, assistant professor of architecture.  

 As a result Whelton has doubled down on the digital part of the course.

For an early assignment, students designed a digital avatar of themselves. These avatars were then used in submissions for a design competition for Pre’s Rock memorial in Eugene honoring Olympic runner Steve “Pre” Prefontaine. Now students are experimenting with various digital tools and techniques in their own investigations of digital space. 

This freedom means some students are making sound soundscapes based on the DNA of the COVID virus, others are exploring animation and still others are making digital reconstructions of iconic architectural precedents from history. 

“We're doing really weird things and thinking architecturally through these very different lenses,” says Whelton. “It's been really interesting; some students are exploring digital design methods that I haven’t considered using in architecture.”

Architecture courses involve a lot of interaction between students and professors and among students themselves — in the studio, in the hallways, in office hours. Whelton has been working to recreate places for these types of interactions in his remote class. 

“We use Zoom every day for class,” he says. “That’s like our studio space.” He likens Slack, the communication and messaging platform, to office hours as well as an informal way for students to ask him, and each other, questions between classes.

Finding a way to digitally replace the hallways of Shattuck Hall was trickier. 

“The hallway is like the lifeblood of the school," says Whelton. "It's where you see other work and get inspired and learn what everyone's doing,” says Whelton. 

One of Whelton’s colleagues suggested trying a virtual tool called Conceptboard. Conceptboard allows students to display their work as well as view and interact with their classmates’ projects. 

“It's like walking through the hall and seeing students hanging up drawings and renderings like we would in Shattuck Hall,” says Whelton. “It's been working really well.”
Whelton says he may continue to use some of these new tools when face-to-face courses resume. 

“One of the things I like about this class is that it is giving students an opportunity to stretch, to explore architectural ideas in a digital environment,” says Whelton. “It is expanding their capacity for thinking about architecture, and I think that's really valuable.”

Seeing the whole student

Besides rejiggering their courses to work remotely, PSU faculty are also striving to take into account student difficulties that are amplified due to the pandemic. 

For Zapoura Newton-Calvert who is teaching two Capstone courses this term — Social Justice in K-12 Education and Anti-bias in K-12 Education — this means incorporating the children of PSU students into the curriculum. 

“We focus on anti-racist and anti-bias practice in education and look at the history of public education in the United States and in Portland,” says Newton-Calvert. “We really dig into the bigger institutional and structural inequities that cause the other kinds of inequities that we see for students.” 

In Senior Capstone courses, students apply their knowledge and skills to community-based learning projects, often working in the field with community partners. This means that many Capstone courses have had to be reimagined for this remote term. Normally about half of Newton-Calvert’s Capstone students work directly with students in schools, but that isn’t possible now that schools are operating remotely.  

 So Newton-Calvert and her Capstone students changed course. Working with their partnership organization, Reading is Resistance, students are putting together learning kits that focus on anti-bias standards. All of the books in these kits are accessible for free as ebooks, audiobooks or YouTube read-alouds. Students are organizing content around these books and are sharing the kits with parents and teachers. 

“We’re trying to support the education that's happening, how it's happening right now,” says Newton-Calvert. 

And for the Capstone students who are parents themselves — Newton-Calvert estimates as many as half of her students are — this new version of the Capstone course allows facilitating their children’s remote learning to be part of their Capstone work. 

“Student parents and many college instructors, including me, are also teaching their kids at home, and some of us are barely managing,” she says. For student parents in her Capstones, their job is to test content with their kids and provide feedback. 

“Getting that feedback from kids is very valuable, and we don't need to add additional labor to parents’ plates right now,” says Newton-Calvert. 

Newton-Calvert says her students have had other logistical barriers that make this term extra hard. Some students didn’t have laptops and had to borrow them from PSU; others don’t have high speed internet or struggle with technology. 

“I keep my virtual door open as much as possible,” she says.

Existing inequities and disparities further exacerbated by the pandemic — such as the poorer health outcomes for black and Latinx patients with COVID-19 — are also a topic of discussion in class, as is resiliency. 

She notes that her students have been extra supportive of each other this term. 

“There's a real acknowledgment of all the things we're balancing across the board,” says Newton-Calvert. “It feels really special so I hope that we can continue to do that for each other beyond this.”

Reengineering learning

Pre-pandemic, some courses didn’t just operate face-to-face but were literally hands-on.  

Robert Bass, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, is teaching a lecture and lab course called Power Systems 2 and is overseeing the lab section for Power Systems 1 this term.

“It’s the labs that have been the biggest challenge,” says Bass. 

Normally, students in these labs would be working on hands-on projects like building an electric power control system. Bass had to scrap hands-on labs this term, but he knew students would still need to learn the concepts from the labs.

With the help of Sean Keene, who will be starting an engineering master’s program in the fall, Bass was able to record laboratory demonstrations. Keene just happens to have a film degree. 

“They’re very well done,” he says. “That was a huge stroke of luck.” 

Before the term began, Bass asked students to create a schedule of the meetings they would have together and to identify which tools they would use to communicate and collaborate with one another such as Slack and Google Docs.

Because these tools are online, Bass has been able to see how his students collaborate. “It's been great to see how they work together, how smart they are, how they work out problems and how they treat each other,” he says. 

He says while some students are having trouble with time management and getting used to a new communication medium, overall they’re doing really well. 

“Most of the students are thriving,” he says. “I think this is probably one of my best terms ever. I’ve just been able to connect, ironically, very well with the students.”

Learning to work from home may have the added benefit of preparing students for a changing industry. A few weeks after the shutdown began, Bass learned that some companies currently hiring engineers are renegotiating their commercial leases because they now understand that their employees can be productive working remotely.

“There are certainly strong advantages to having face-to-face contact, and I hope we go back to situations where we can do that in the near future,” says Bass. “But at the same time we need to embrace these other technologies because they actually do increase our productivity, they increase our ability to work, they increase our ability to communicate with each other.”

Because of this Bass thinks some of the remote elements of his courses will stick around once face-to-face teaching resumes.

“These tools make students better suited for the workforce, but they’re also going to make them better engineers and more connected citizens,” he says.