This fall, the goal is to keep the Weber State University community healthy and our campuses and centers open, as long as the state doesn’t move from yellow back to orange or red. This means many more classes on campus than was possible in late spring and summer semesters. It also means more classes online. But these virtual classes aren’t your father’s correspondence classes.

The university has successfully been holding classes online since the late 1990s and improving gradually. But the need for increased virtual classes puts pressure on faculty to up their game quickly. Fortunately, WSU’s new provost, Ravi Krovi, and associate provost Brenda Marsteller Kowalewski have been finding ways to assist faculty in getting creative. Here are just a handful of new approaches faculty are working on this summer.

Elizabeth Balgord from the Department of Earth and Environmental Science leads a team that is developing multiple immersive virtual field trips (iVFTs). Getting students into the field has proven effective in science and many other disciplines. Given the potential difficulties in travel, Elizabeth is creating virtual experiences. This summer, she will head to the mountains, the desert and the Great Salt Lake with wide-angle cameras and microphones to record micro lectures. These can then be used by online and in-person classes in many fields in science to supplement or partly replace in-person learning.

In political science, Janicke Stramer-Smith is creating a policy decision-making simulation module that can be completed fully online. It still maintains the interactivity and engagement of a face-to-face simulation. The project will transform to online the Council for Foreign Relations Model Diplomacy pop-up cases. The pop-up cases are short, single-page scenarios touching on many issues we find in the news today — scenarios like election security, the coronavirus response, preparing for the next pandemic, the global recession, climate change and others.

Janicke will create short video lectures on the cases. There will be readings and other videos. Students are then paired virtually into discussion groups to present their findings. The discussion groups are then rearranged into decision groups where they need to create a common policy approach. This way, students will still benefit from interactive simulations while engaging in virtual teaching. Janicke hopes to create a simple template from which to create this simulation module so instructors can easily substitute one case for another case.

Randy Hurd, an incoming faculty member of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, created just last year, didn’t waste time proposing a new way to teach some classes that traditionally require a lot of in-person activity. In fact, Randy started working on his project already, even though he isn’t officially slated to begin his new job until July 1.

Randy is utilizing a technology that most students have — the smartphone — to replicate some of the equipment we use in the lab. Modern smartphones contain a wide array of measurement instruments that can be accessed using an open-source app called Phyphox. As Randy says, “The majority of teenagers wander around with more computing power rattling around in their pocket than the Apollo 11 guidance computers.” So, why not use them?

Most people know they can use their phone to find their location, measure how many steps they’ve taken, take pictures and record messages. Phones use sensors such as the Global Positioning System, gyroscopes, 3-axis accelerometers, microphones and cameras.

Randy is using the Phyphox software to access these sensors to create innovative instrumentation and measurement lab experiments. Instead of them needing to come to campus to use potentially expensive lab equipment, students can conduct these experiments almost anywhere.

Once these faculty complete these projects and try out the approaches with their classes, future classes will likely benefit as well. Randy’s work will augment several of his own classes in the future, and other faculty will have a leg up on creating their own labs. Janicke’s will make the simulations flexible enough to use for any future socio-political scenario. Once Elizabeth’s immersive virtual field trips have been created, any class in any school in Utah can use them, mixing and matching for whatever need arises. If successful, the university can invest in more, for any field that benefits from field trips — from botany to business, from architecture to anthropology.

I’ve only reviewed a few of the 25 or more proposals I’ve seen. The phrase “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has been attributed to Winston Churchill. I think we can safely say that Weber State is putting those words into action. Whether on-campus or virtual or mixed, Weber State classes will prove exciting and indelible.

Dr. David Ferro is dean of the College of Engineering, Applied Science & Technology at Weber State University. Twitter: DavidFerro9

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