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In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the St. Mary’s University community has adapted — faculty stepping up to deliver quality education to students from a distance.

David Turner, Ph.D., teaching in a classroom.

David Turner, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Environmental Science, shared takeaways from his spring classes in a Q&A. Turner began teaching at St. Mary’s in Fall 2009, joining full time in 2011. He specializes in sustainability, energy and the environment, pollution analysis and remediation, and environmental geochemistry. In Spring 2020, he taught General Geology, General Geology Lab, Scientific and Technical Writing, and Pollution Analysis and Remediation.

Q: What was your approach in switching to online learning in a short period of time?

A: I had been planning to complete the Online Training Certification Program during the Fall 2020 semester, so the pandemic pushed me into starting sooner. I spoke with faculty who have more experience in online instruction and learned about the challenges and stress that many students experience with online access. I also had students spread out over multiple time zones (including one student in Australia), so I planned on a mostly asynchronous approach that would allow them to access the materials on a schedule that worked better for them. I also set up a virtual office and weekly meetings via Zoom (a cloud-based videoconferencing platform) that students could drop in or use a discussion feature to ask questions.

For my Pollution Analysis and Remediation course, I spent the extra week during spring break to record my remaining lectures and created structured reading and writing assignments that encouraged students to examine aspects of water pollution and soil contamination in their communities.  

I also needed to reframe our semester project. To understand noise pollution, my students had designed and begun a crowdsourcing analysis of campus sound levels using their smartphones. The initial plan had been to work with the data in class to prepare a poster for the end-of-semester Undergraduate Research Symposium, but the closing of campus prevented this plan. Fortunately, my students completed the data collection just prior to spring break, so we had basic information to work with. Working from home, students were able to explore ways to examine and display the data to find trends on noise levels and also to reflect on strengths and weaknesses of our approach to recommend improvements for future research. By the way, students were able to identify fluctuations in noise level across campus. Between classes, there are quiet places near the Quad with the noisiest place at the southwest corner of the campus near the intersection of 36th Street and Culebra Road. 

Q: What are some new teaching methods you’ve picked up along the way?

A: I miss being in class to interact with students. Although it is not the same, Zoom has been a tremendous help in staying connected with them. Kaltura Capture and other technologies offer ways to record lectures for later viewing. I am hoping that in future classes, I can use these recordings to increase the level of discussion within the classroom. 

Q: What has been your biggest area or opportunity for growth in teaching online thus far?

A: Recording lectures and Zoom sessions has made me painfully aware of how much I say “um” when speaking — clearly there is room for improvement. More importantly, however, I would like to do a better job of recreating the interactive give-and-take that happens in a physical classroom within an online setting. For me, the experience from this spring has emphasized the importance of better upfront course design and clearer expectations. I also think that including online resources in the classroom setting can be used to introduce and reinforce concepts of information and science literacy by guiding students to more reliable sources.   

Q: What has been most surprising?

A: Zoom and better videoconferencing tools came online just in time to support remote learning on a huge scale. I remember participating in my first video conference more than 25 years ago — it required specialized equipment in a dedicated room with trained personnel and constant contact with the phone company. Even with all that support, it still jumped and froze and was generally a disappointing experience. The speed with which our University specifically, but also academia as a whole, has been able to bring a simple-to-use, functional virtual experience into everyone’s office and room is just amazing to me.

Q: What has been the most beneficial experience of teaching online?

A: This isn’t surprising to me, but the resilience of our students has been amazing. I know that students have had to adjust to massive change in a very short time, and their persistence has been a joy to watch. Through the virtual classroom, I’ve been able to see our students in a different way — I have been introduced to their family members, met their pets and gotten tours of the concert posters in their rooms. This has helped to soften some of the isolation that a fully online model can produce.

Q: Students look to you for guidance, for wisdom, especially during times of crisis. How have you managed your own challenges and anxieties in quarantine?

A: I made a career change from industry to academia to engage with students. I rely on our students to show me geology from their perspective, which constantly provides me with new ways to look at my chosen discipline. It is so much fun to see someone learning a geological principle for the first time, which keeps geology new and fresh for me. Working remotely has temporarily taken that person-to-person interaction away, so my biggest challenge is to stay focused and inquisitive in the absence of the immediate feedback I would get in the classroom. I also miss my colleagues and being able to go outside with students to talk about what we are seeing in nature and what it means.  

The rapid push to deliver online instruction has made me more aware of gaps in my toolkit, and has helped me identify areas for improvement. I am working to be more deliberate in course planning, but at the same time, I want to continue to encourage flexibility in my students. 

I have to remind myself that although there are going to be changes that result from the pandemic, we will be able to return to campus and be together again as a community.

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