After an extended spring break, professors have transitioned typically in-person classes to fit an online format for spring classes beginning today, Monday, April 6.
On March 16, Cal Poly announced that not only would spring classes move online, but the usual 10-week instruction would shift to nine weeks to allow professors a chance to change their lesson plans. Professors across majors shared their concerns about virtual labs and a lack of in-person teaching.
A shift in labs
When mechanical engineering professor Joseph Mello first learned about the online quarter, he jokingly said that he wanted to quit.
“It’s just so not me,” Mello said. “I really just love being in the classroom engineering with students.”
Mello has taught at Cal Poly for about 22 years and in the spring he is teaching Mechanical Systems Design (ME 329), which he described as learning about everything someone would need to make a “car go.”
Mello said he plans to teach his class online through Zoom Video Communications, a remote conferencing service that allows students and faculty to communicate from separate locations.
Mello said he started teaching before Cal Poly curriculum relied on the internet, so his colleagues have helped him begin using Zoom, as well as other online tools.
“It’s been neat, just seeing how we have to work together to figure this out and deliver the best content we can, even though we know it’s going to be flawed in some ways,” Mello said.
Another professor who is teaching his last quarter at Cal Poly said he is also concerned.
Horticulture and crop science professor Mark Shelton is set to teach People, Pests and Plagues (AEPS 110) for his 38th year.
“I wish I would have ended my 38-year career at Cal Poly face to face because I’ve loved teaching students and getting to know them, and it was a real pleasure in the last few quarters to do that,” Shelton said.
Shelton said he is not so much worried about lectures, but that he will not be able to lead any of the in-class labs he had planned.
“I was prepared to do a couple of weeks online and then get back into a lot of hands-on labs, which is really the heart of this class,” Shelton said.
Shelton said in place of the labs, he will use online videos and virtual labs to simulate an in-class laboratory. Students will also conduct projects at home such as bug collecting and writing a final essay.
“That doesn’t come close to what I do in lab, where I take the students out in bee suits and we use smokers and we have a honey extraction lab where students get to taste honey that came right out of Cal Poly — none of that stuff is going to happen,” Shelton said.
Shelton said he is not only concerned about learning objectives being met, but student engagement.
Out of the 72 enrolled students in his class, when asked to respond “yes” to an email he sent out to them, he said he only received about half of the class’ responses and a few were trickling in.
Recruiting operations officer Ken Harris and assistant professor of military science Kenny Green are also making adjustments for the Cal Poly Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) programs.
Harris said that while some classes such as military science will make an easy online transfer, physical courses including physical training will be more difficult to keep track of.
Green is an MS3 instructor teaching a class intended to prepare juniors for summer field training at Fort Knox in Kentucky.
“I think my class is more geared towards like the tactics and more of the fieldcraft because that’s what they’re going to be getting tested on in camp,” Green said.
Green said that the greatest challenge will be conducting labs, which generally take place in Poly Canyon so students can practice what they learned in class. However, they will now attempt to use Zoom to substitute that.
“One thing about the ROTC is [students] are learning how to be leaders,” Green said. “They’re going to be officers in the army, and this is just another way for them to react as leaders and to overcome a situation that came out of nowhere.”
A different kind of class culture
In addition to a change in the way labs operate, classes will have to move forward without the in-class atmostphere.
Architecture professor Brian Osborn teaches a year-long senior thesis and a sophomore architectural sequence class.
For his fifth-year senior class, Osborn said that one of the traditions is building large and elaborate physical models, but they will now have to lighten up on the physical requirement because students may lack the materials or tools they might need.
Osborn said that the lack of an allotted on-campus studio space, as well as equipment such as printers, laser cutters and other tools that help them to make physical models is a big concern.
“Their studio space gives them the fabrication area that they need to build those models and to do work over a long period of time,” Osborn said.
More than that, Osborn said the architecture department’s “studio culture” will be missing from the student’s experience. Due to the nature of the space, as well as the long hours spent in the studio, Osborn said students often create bonds with one another while working on similar projects and that culture can be very productive for the students — something he is concerned about losing.
However, Osborn said there has been a positive response within the faculty community.
“The faculty is kind of coming together as a community in order to think through how to run our courses online over the spring,” Osborn said.
Landscape architecture professor David Watts also said he will miss the campus atmosphere.
“The thing that I’m probably going to miss the most this quarter is students walking down the hall and then swinging by my office and stopping to chat,” Watts said.
He said he prescribes to the “Beaux-Arts” methodology of teaching which includes a studio experience with a small number of people.
“Coming together physically allows students to interact so they learn as much from their peers as they do from us as faculty,” Watts said.
Watts is in his 11th year at Cal Poly and will teach the third class in a series of design studio courses in spring.
Watts said he is concerned about the level of separation in modern society due to technology.
“You technically could get through the whole quarter without interacting with somebody else,” Watts said.
However, Watts plans on leading a mix of online lectures and outside projects to keep students engaged in his class.
Watts said spring classes moving online is a “double-edged sword” in that although the extra week of preparation was nice, the already fast pace of the quarter system will be even quicker.