Teaching innovations for fall 2020

Faculty have reimagined their courses to meet virtual demands

Claremont McKenna College faculty have thrown away the academic playbook this fall by turning their courses inside-out and creating innovative ways to meet the demands of an all-virtual academic semester.

They’ve revamped syllabi to capitalize on a wealth of digital resources. They’ve broadened their modes of teaching to mount the virtual possibilities. They’ve developed hands-on projects that students can design, execute, and share remotely.

Yet, the goal is the same as it has always been at CMC: To actively engage students and provide an immersive, personalized, and advanced academic experience.

“In some cases, CMC professors have created new courses while in more cases faculty have modified their existing courses to provide students the opportunity to dig deeply into the complicated challenges of this time,” said Peter Uvin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “Our students will find myriad ways to engage and collaborate with their professors and with each other, whatever their interest or discipline.”

This will not be the first time that Tamara Venit-Shelton has taught “Human Health and Disease in American History.” But considering the timeliness of the topic, she has reimagined her approach. With the shift in focus to COVID-19 comes a shift in student assignments.

“In some cases, CMC professors have created new courses while in more cases faculty have modified their existing courses to provide students the opportunity to dig deeply into the complicated challenges of this time,” said Peter Uvin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. “Our students will find myriad ways to engage and collaborate with their professors and with each other, whatever their interest or discipline.”

This will not be the first time that Tamara Venit-Shelton has taught “Human Health and Disease in American History.” But considering the timeliness of the topic, she has reimagined her approach. With the shift in focus to COVID-19 comes a shift in student assignments.

“I’m introducing more readings to offer historical context of the pandemic, to offer prior experiences with pandemics and concepts of contagion from the late 19th century until now,” said Venit-Shelton, an associate professor of history.

Venit-Shelton’s students will also get the opportunity to become historians of their own time as part of the COVID19@CMC program. They will document and archive the lived experience of the pandemic and a summer of protest among the CMC community. A leading oral historian will train students to conduct interviews with peers, alumni, faculty, and staff. Artifacts they gather will become part of a digital archive housed by Special Collections at the Claremont Colleges Library.

Paradoxically, social distancing will bring everyone closer together.

Venit-Shelton’s students will also get the opportunity to become historians of their own time as part of the COVID19@CMC program. They will document and archive the lived experience of the pandemic and a summer of protest among the CMC community. A leading oral historian will train students to conduct interviews with peers, alumni, faculty, and staff. Artifacts they gather will become part of a digital archive housed by Special Collections at the Claremont Colleges Library.

Paradoxically, social distancing will bring everyone closer together.

“This is what we need to do for our students right now,” Venit-Shelton said. “This is the service that teaching history can provide, this what a liberal arts education can provide—a conceptual and methodical tool kit for interpreting what’s going on in the world.”

Real World Engagement

Likewise, “this is a great time to be studying government. It’s relevant, accessible, exciting, and sometimes terrifying. This is an opportunity that will not be present in any other semester,” said Andrew Sinclair, assistant professor of government.

Teaching “American Politics” and “Public Policy Process” this fall, Sinclair sees ample, vibrant learning opportunities emerging from the lead up to the presidential election in November 2020. And then there will be the aftermath.

“No matter if the Republicans or the Democrats win, we’ll look at how the losing party will pick up the pieces. And what agenda will the winning party pursue? It will be a huge soul-searching moment—however the election turns out,” Sinclair said.

To foster intellectual exchange throughout his class, Sinclair will ask first-year students to write letters to each other based in concept on those between former presidents—and political rivals—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. “Adams and Jefferson explained themselves to each other,” Sinclair said. “I want my students to write about the Constitution, while sharing their own values and perspectives. And then I want another student to read the letter and be able to summarize the argument. The goal is not to win a debate, the goal is to comprehend and refine the arguments made.”

For Kathleen Purvis-Roberts, revamping her “Environmental Chemistry” course virtually has offered some unforeseen opportunities.

To foster intellectual exchange throughout his class, Sinclair will ask first-year students to write letters to each other based in concept on those between former presidents—and political rivals—John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. “Adams and Jefferson explained themselves to each other,” Sinclair said. “I want my students to write about the Constitution, while sharing their own values and perspectives. And then I want another student to read the letter and be able to summarize the argument. The goal is not to win a debate, the goal is to comprehend and refine the arguments made.”

For Kathleen Purvis-Roberts, revamping her “Environmental Chemistry” course virtually has offered some unforeseen opportunities.

She has always wanted to include real-world environmental data in her class. This fall, she’ll get her chance, as students will collaborate with their peers at the King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) in Bangkok to study the city’s canal system and develop solutions to revitalize the area.

Purvis-Roberts’ students will analyze the weather, as well as air and water quality data gathered by citizen scientists along Bangkok’s canals. They will also analyze data on how the canals are used, whether for transportation or recreation. (The Claremont Colleges’ EnviroLab Asia initiative funded the weather stations, air samplers, and water samplers.)

“Students will get to analyze real-time data—a pretty big data set—which is a great learning lesson in general,” said Purvis-Roberts, professor of chemistry and environmental science.

Another lesson will come when her students begin to communicate their findings with their Thai peers, who are master’s level students in architecture and design. Zoom technology will smooth their collaboration via video so students can meet with each other virtually despite being a world apart. The Claremont Colleges and KMUTT students will work together to communicate their research to both citizens who live in the area and policymakers from the City of Bangkok.

While technology will enable the connection, it’s up to Purvis-Roberts’ students to leverage the moment. “My students will need to learn how to communicate their science, how to come up with creative ways to communicate it,” she said. “As scientists, it’s so important that we learn to talk about what we do, so everyone can understand it. In this case, there’s an added benefit as it will also be an intercultural experience.”

Learning Together

In “Advanced Projects in Data Science,” a course led by Jeho Park in collaboration with multiple faculty, teams of students will further their experience with data by using it to solve real world problems. The course serves as the capstone experience for the data science major, new starting this fall, and the data science sequence. 

“It’ll be exciting and valuable for students to work directly with clients from the private and the  public sectors,” said Park, director of the Murty Sunak Quantitative and Computing Lab. This semester, the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team will again be one of the course’s clients.

“We’re developing a statistical model using data collected from the Statcast tracking system that records the trajectory of the ball thrown to first basemen and then captures whether or not the ball was caught or missed,” Park explained. “We analyze the trajectory data to quantify the fielding ability of first basemen in the Major League of Baseball.”

Now that the course is completely online, students will learn how to virtually present findings to their clients. “It’s a unique opportunity for students to learn soft skills through weekly meetings that enhance their project management abilities, teamwork, professional presentation and communication skills,” Park said.

Similarly, Venit-Shelton also adapted her “American West” survey course to encourage more “connectivity and community building” and “problem solving in groups.” Most exciting is the opportunity to consult with a curator at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles on redesigning the museum’s centerpiece “Imagined West” exhibit.

Now that the course is completely online, students will learn how to virtually present findings to their clients. “It’s a unique opportunity for students to learn soft skills through weekly meetings that enhance their project management abilities, teamwork, professional presentation and communication skills,” Park said.

Similarly, Venit-Shelton also adapted her “American West” survey course to encourage more “connectivity and community building” and “problem solving in groups.” Most exciting is the opportunity to consult with a curator at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles on redesigning the museum’s centerpiece “Imagined West” exhibit.

“Students are going to evaluate prototypes of the new exhibit,” Venit-Shelton said. “Usually the museum asks visitors to interact with their new displays, but as they are closed to visitors, the museum approached me about students doing that work.” In addition, students will research artifacts and individuals for possible inclusion and propose ways to display them in the gallery.

“The best outcome for the students would be if some part of what they worked on is up on the museum’s walls one day,” said Venit-Shelton.

Meeting the Moment

Whether it’s mastering Sakai or avoiding Zoom burnout, CMC faculty are exploring the most effective ways to employ emerging technologies and adjust to life away from campus. Familiar standbys can also be reimagined, Purvis-Roberts said. Her emphasis on lab work in “Introduction to Chemistry” will extend to mailed at-home kits so students can conduct water testing from their home faucet. “They’ll still get to do something with their hands and experience the fun of lab work.”

Students enrolled in “Principles of Physics” will also receive a box full of at-home lab items, including a mini-catapult kit. For one of the experiments, the students will work in groups to optimize their foot-by-foot catapults for firing distance in order to see which team does the best. “Every student I've mentioned this to has been excited,” said Janet Sheung, assistant professor of physics. “Opportunities to reimagine a lab curriculum come very rarely, and this is one of those times.”

“I’m impressed with my colleagues, with the creative ways they are approaching their teaching,” Purvis-Roberts added. “It’s been a big-time investment for us, but it’s all so that our students can stay active, engaged, and better understand our classes.”

For Sinclair, who is planning his lectures so students can consume them like episodes of a podcast, the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled him to “unbundle” his traditional classroom activities into component parts, encouraging student conversations and leading special sessions.

“I’m impressed with my colleagues, with the creative ways they are approaching their teaching,” Purvis-Roberts added. “It’s been a big-time investment for us, but it’s all so that our students can stay active, engaged, and better understand our classes.”

For Sinclair, who is planning his lectures so students can consume them like episodes of a podcast, the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled him to “unbundle” his traditional classroom activities into component parts, encouraging student conversations and leading special sessions.

“The crisis has generated a need to innovate,” he recently wrote on his “Office Hours” blog, in a post titled, Returning to CMC: The Fall 2020 Semester. “What is perhaps most telling is that I think some of the changes I will adopt for the fall 2020 semester will remain part of my teaching approach—even when we have returned to more normal operations.”

“The pandemic forced us into online learning, forced us to ramp up our tech capabilities. Now online teaching is at the centerpiece of both my courses,” Venit-Shelton added. Colleagues in the history department launched a YouTube channel and uploaded videos offering explainers and reading recommendations related to what’s happening in the world. Videos, she explained, are “how students are accustomed to consuming information. When you’re learning to teach, you learn that you have to meet your students where they are.”

“We can’t stay in our comfort zone,” Venit-Shelton continued. “It’s time to bust out of it. Some of these new ways are going to be wonderful and transform the way we teach for generations to come.”

- Anne Bergman