Preparing the lab for social distancing

Students setting up the Chemical Engineering Senior Lab to accommodate social distancing for A-Term. Photo by Steve Kmiotek.

Joining Forces with Faculty to Teach This Fall

WPI’s Undergraduate Studies, Academic Technology Center, Graduate Studies, and Morgan Teaching & Learning Center are supporting faculty as they gear up to teach A-Term classes.

 

August 6, 2020
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Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a three-part series examining how WPI is reimagining its distinctive education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.    
 

Part 2: WPI faculty gain even more technical skills as online, hybrid, and in-person classes are planned for the fall. Read Part 1 here.


As WPI faculty gear up for the fall semester, they will augment their traditional classroom teaching techniques with new skills gained from enhanced training through Undergraduate Studies, Academic Technology Center, Graduate Studies, and the longstanding Morgan Teaching & Learning Center.

Chrysanthe Demetry, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Morgan Teaching & Learning Center, says that faculty members have learned a lot about flexible teaching since D-Term 2020. In particular, she notes that they have embraced the challenge of transitioning from the familiarity of face-to-face instruction to the greater amount of planning that high-quality online teaching demands. “We are really committed to high-quality education and student success, regardless of modality,” she says.

Building the Framework

That commitment, pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic and then paired with pedagogical and technical help, prepared faculty to teach flexibly in a short period of time, and for the long haul.

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Chrysanthe Demetry, professor of mechanical engineering  alt
Chrysanthe Demetry, professor of mechanical engineering

Reflecting on lessons learned in D-Term—when WPI sent its community to work, learn, and teach from home in March—faculty members have since demonstrated a willingness to learn and revisit core principles of effective teaching, especially for online formats, and expanded their teaching toolkits.

Because of this, teaching and learning opportunities have a bright future in the approaching school year. “We’re confident that we’re going to provide high quality hybrid and online learning experiences this fall, given the considerable amount of training and experience that faculty have gained over the summer,” says Demetry.

Part of that experience and preparation entailed faculty members working with Caitlin Keller and her team in ATC (and IT, which did the considerable technical work of moving classes online) to determine how their courses would look online. Faculty members had to consider what topics to cover, how to adapt teaching materials to an online format, and how to design student assignments such as homework and quizzes.

Building faculty members’ courses like this “let us highlight the differences between in-person and online teaching,” says Keller, an instructional designer. “We helped break down how faculty can interact with students while they’re on screen instead of in a classroom, and find the natural breaks during videoed lectures. We’re making things digestible, and keeping the rigor of in-person classes.”

Valerie Smedile Rifkin, an instructional designer for the ATC, considers input from Graduate Studies, which is led by Jody Reis, associate director of program delivery, and factors like engagement and flexibility when she and her team look at students’ return on investment with online learning. “We always look at what students need out of these classes, how to measure these classes so that they achieved their goals, and whether they aligned with learning outcomes,” Smedile Rifkin says.

We always look at what students need out of these classes, how to measure these classes so that they achieved their goals, and whether they aligned with learning outcomes.
-Valerie Smedile Rifkin, instructional designer for the ATC

No Strain with Training

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and especially after D-Term 2020, Graduate Studies has encouraged faculty who are looking to teach an online class to enroll in Faculty Institute for Online Teaching (FIOT). The program, which helps faculty members design a successful digital classroom experience suited for the 21st Century, is offered twice a year—more sessions will be offered in the upcoming academic year.

In FIOT, faculty members participate in three phases in a three- to six-month period in which they complete a course syllabus, a tentative course schedule, and at least one activity/lesson that can be incorporated into their classes.

FIOT will be offered in the next academic year as well. Watch the Campus Calendar for updates.

“There’s a lot of up-front work, but we did constant check-ins during the term to see how students were engaging with classes,” says Kristin Marengo, an instructional tech specialist in Graduate Studies, and who also works with Reis. “We want to help faculty build a good community with students as they go through their courses and degree journey.”

Reis says students and faculty adapted and had a successful term. “They were forced into a situation where they had to do this, and people responded well,” she says.

By the end of this summer, 70 percent of WPI faculty members will have received training and/or help to set up their online classes. But it doesn’t stop there.

Summer Support

Additional support and training for faculty is already underway, especially with A-Term right around the corner. Demetry has been connecting with department heads to encourage faculty members to participate in training. She has also been pointing them to the numerous programs offered by the Morgan Teaching & Learning Center in preparation for TechFlex and the new academic year, including the following:

  • The Online Pedagogy Workshop (OPW), which kicked off July 15, is a four-week training focused on the principles of course design for online instruction, strategies for active learning in online environments, course delivery considerations, and strategies for building community online. Follow this link to the OPW page to learn more.
  • The Faculty Online Learning Community, which will serve as a follow-up to the OPW, is a Microsoft Teams site for faculty members to connect and share course plans and ideas, respond to questions and challenges, and exchange information and resources.
  • Technology Training, which will be offered by ATC and Technology for Teaching and Learning (ATC-TTL team), will train faculty members who want to learn a new technology tool, or who need a tech refresher. Previously recorded training sessions are also available here.
  • Graduate Teaching Assistant (TA) and Peer Learning Assistant (PLA) Training, which will include training for TAs and PLAs to support students and faculty members in online and hybrid courses, is offered by the associate directors for TA and PLA Development in the Morgan Center: Mike Johnson, associate teaching professor in mathematical sciences; Rudra Kafle, assistant teaching professor in physics; and Zoe Reidinger, assistant teaching professor in biomedical engineering.  
  • Virtual Student Support, which will feature a team led by Debra Boucher, director of special academic programs in Undergraduate Studies; Katie Elmes, director of expanded learning opportunities; and Aprile Mero, operations manager of Undergraduate Studies, assists faculty with engaging students who might not be responsive in the online space. The team is available for consultations this summer. 

Ready, Set, Teach

Many faculty members, such as Sue Roberts, professor and department head of chemical engineering, had a smooth and even fun experience while teaching online during D-Term. Roberts was able to meet virtually with her students more frequently than she could at her office, and she didn’t sweat it if students couldn’t make the time of her lectures due to family commitments, for example.

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Sue Roberts, professor and department head of chemical engineering alt
Sue Roberts, professor and department head of chemical engineering

“The students were responding and participated in online lectures. For those who couldn’t attend the live lecture, they could watch it later (since the lectures were recorded) and structure it into their own schedules,” she says.

Looking toward A-Term, Stephen Kmiotek, professor of practice in chemical engineering, says he and the department devised a safe way for students to operate the 6,000-square-foot Chemical Engineering Senior Lab in Goddard Hall while abiding by social distancing requirements, and de-densifying the lab by 50 percent. The method was made possible by several high-resolution cameras installed by ATC, which will provide a live feed and enable students to work in-person the lab and remotely simultaneously.

“Some students will be able to participate in the lab remotely by zooming the cameras in to the various gauges and instruments to collect data, while the students who are in the lab can actually do the physical operation of the equipment,” Kmiotek says. “Remote students will be able to fully participate in the lab and operate the equipment safely.”

And, most important, give students a great learning experience.

“We’re really excited about our plans,” Kmiotek says.

 

Coming tomorrow: With equal parts vision and hard work, faculty are rethinking the “classroom.”

-Jessica Messier