It was sunny due to the midafternoon sun, but cold. Kay Choe, along with the other students in her environmental planning class, were bundled up in sweatshirts and jackets as they walked up Cerro San Luis in the early autumn of 2021 not to hike, jog or bike, but to examine the terrain.
They took photos and notes on the natural environment, while their professor interjected with facts about the area and its land.
Choe and her classmates were conducting a site assessment, observing and gathering information about Cerro San Luis, also known as Madonna Mountain, and its notable features and potential hazards.
This was the first site assessment that Choe, a city and regional planning (CRP) junior, was able to conduct in-person. Most of her previous CRP classes were held virtually, and site assessments were conducted using online images.
Choe’s first site assessment was completed online during an urban design studio in her sophomore year. She was assigned an assessment of the empty lot across from Splash Café and asked to design a parking lot for the space.
“We would have normally gone to the site and observed it ourselves, but I had to do it all through Google Maps and Google Earth, ” Choe said. “Never having done a site assessment before and having to do it through Google was hard. If I’m looking for a good area to put, say, a few benches in the shade, I couldn’t really determine where the shady areas on that site were.”
The CRP department moved online with the rest of Cal Poly when the pandemic began in 2020. CRP major courses are still largely online despite Cal Poly beginning to return to in-person classes — and some courses may remain online permanently.
CRP majors learn the technical and political processes of organizing and designing the built environment. The program is small at Cal Poly, with a total of 139 undergraduates majoring in CRP in 2019.
COVID-19 required professors from across campus to adapt their courses for virtual learning, and some professors found that the online format favored their coursework and provided more benefits than hindrances.
“We all got thrown into this big experiment for over a year, and coming out of that, we’ve begun to think about what we’ve learned,” CRP department head Dr. Michael Boswell said. “We asked, ‘Are there some courses we can deliver better in an online format?’ And I think that is the case.”
A handful of classes were approved to remain online for the 2022-2023 school year, regardless of whether COVID-19 cases decrease before the term begins in September.
The CRP department plans to move roughly 10% of its courses – around 30 courses – to a “permanent virtual format,” according to Boswell. These classes are primarily traditional classroom lectures and electives, he said.
The decision was made largely to create more accessibility to classes, with online classes — especially those taught in an asynchronous format — allowing students greater flexibility when building their course schedules.
The adoption of online CRP courses also mirrors changes happening within the planning profession, Boswell said. Many planning firms have transitioned to become remote or semi-remote as a precaution against COVID-19. Virtual learning prepares CRP students to work remotely post-graduation.
“Students who have graduated during the COVID era are well-prepared to work professionally in these communities,” Boswell said. “Planners, we’re very pragmatic. It’s a global pandemic, but we have to continue to do our best work and not let this stand in our way of doing what needs to be done.”
CRP majors are proving adaptable to these changes, Boswell said.
The CRP department requires all students to complete an internship at a planning-related agency or private firm prior to graduation. The requirement was waived for graduating seniors in 2021 and 2022, but several students completed an internship regardless.
Many internships were offered online. The remote work allowed students to intern with firms from across California without having to relocate.
CRP senior Junhyun Kim interned at a planning firm based in the Bay Area while living in Southern California.
“If it wasn’t for the virtual format, I don’t know if I would have been able to take this internship,” Kim said.
Other CRP major-requirements, however, were not as well-suited for an online format. Labs, for example, were difficult to conduct virtually.
CRP majors are required to learn Geographic Information System (GIS) Mapping, a geographic database in which users can visualize and analyze different regions. Cal Poly’s GIS class has a reputation among CRP students as one of the major’s more difficult courses, Kim said.
The class is usually held in an on-campus computer lab, where students can use Cal Poly computers programmed with GIS. When the CRP department began to transition online, students did not have access to the computer labs, and instead downloaded GIS onto their personal computers.
This led to weeks of technical problems and troubleshooting, Kim said. Students whose personal computers were incompatible with GIS spent over a week participating in “a sort of boot camp,” or class sessions during which they downloaded new software that could support GIS.
Studios were also difficult to adapt for online learning.
CRP assistant professor Dr. Dave Amos teaches a capstone studio, in which CRP seniors collaborate with real cities and counties throughout the state on a two-quarter planning project. The class is four hours long, three days a week and, according to Amos, “is absolutely one that works better in person.”
The capstone class is a comprehensive planning studio, meaning students focus on several aspects of planning, such as environmental planning, land-use and transportation.
Amos divides the students into five groups, then assigns each group a series of tasks at the beginning of each class. Students spend the four-hour class period working on their assigned tasks, while Amos supervises and provides guidance when needed.
“It’s much more task-oriented and skills-oriented, like I’m a project manager, and the students are my planners,” Amos said. “I taught it last year virtually, and it was a tough one. The dynamic environment lends itself to being in-person.”
The class is currently being held in a hybrid format, with in-person sessions where students can work in their project groups, and virtual sessions for less collaborative work, like independent assignments or presentations.
“It’s just a matter of trying to make sure the students are getting the benefits of the in-person studio because this is such an important, foundational class, while also respecting the situation with COVID,” Amos said. “It’s been a balance, for sure.”
As for Kay Choe, she said she is glad to be back to in-person labs and studios, which she feels allows the small group of Cal Poly CRP majors to work closely and establish friendships.
So long as these classes remain in-person, Choe said she does not believe CRP majors will be too affected by CRP lectures and elective courses moving online. That change will more so affect CRP minors and students who take CRP courses to fulfill GE requirements, she said.
“A lot of the connections I’ve built with people in CRP developed because we worked in studio and lab together,” Choe said. “People who only take CRP classes online won’t be able to get to know CRP faculty and students, which is a lost opportunity for both CRP majors and non-CRP majors.”