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At Fort Lewis College, mock trials and studies of sedimentary rock seem to translate online

Southwest Colorado, a haven for nation’s geology students, unlikely to see summer field trips
Fort Lewis College geology professor Kim Hannula says geoscience professors across the country are working to turn summer field studies into a format that will work through online videos.

Kim Hannula is among 300 geoscience professors scrambling to convert field classes in which students scurry up and down rock formations to something that works online.

Brian Burke had a week to figure out how to move a mock trial that forms the centerpiece of one of his counseling classes from face-to-face interaction to a video format.

Despite the short time frame imposed on Hannula, a professor of geosciences at Fort Lewis College, and Burke, an FLC psychology professor, they seem to have manged in the space of a little more than a week to move their well-planned classroom encounters to digital exchanges on Zoom.

“I think it’s gone very well, considering the circumstances, and the circumstances are obviously crazy,” Burke said.

Normally, when a professor teaches an online class, Burke said it’s a summer class and the professor and students have months to prepare. Students ensure they have proper internet access. Professors begin lesson planning firm in the knowledge the class will be delivered digitally.

None of that was in place in the COVID-19 semester.

“This was obviously ad hoc; it was just flying by the seat of our pants, and one day it happened, and we had a week to prepare for it,” Burke said.

Fort Lewis College geology professor Kim Hannula says her cat Vi often makes appearances in her online lectures to students.

Hannula said she’s taken lectures and divided them up into 10-minute digestible segments with simple PowerPoints so even students living in remote areas like the north Animas Valley or the Navajo Nation can find a place with good internet access and view them without issues.

The videos sometimes include her cats, Vi and Hobbes, which she occasionally uses in place of rocks, with their stripes serving to denote the different sedimentary layers. And they are always good for morale, as students try to guess if the cats will make a lecture appearance.

“I think the students may feel the impact of moving online more than faculty,” Hannula said.

The classroom provides structure, it gives them deadlines and helps them stay motivated, and that may be the biggest thing to make up for when classes move online.

“And then many students are dealing with all sorts of other stresses in their lives. Some have lost jobs. Lives have been disrupted, and some of them are struggling, I wouldn’t say with motivation, I wouldn’t even call it motivation. I would just call it life is crazy right now,” she said.

In some ways, Hannula said she has an even better sense of what’s going on in her students’ lives than she would in a normal semester because students are doing more individual work, tailored to where they are living.

“They’re doing a lot of individual stuff and turning it in rather than doing group work in a class where I might not be checking in with every individual student out of 38 students. Students are sending me emails telling me I am not going to turn this in by this deadline. And this is what’s going on in my life and that might not happen face-to-face,” she said.

One thing Durango is almost certain to miss, Hannula said, is summer field classes when students from across the country descend on FLC to take advantage of the region’s geologic wonders.

Classes often use FLC dormitories as home base then take camping expeditions for field studies.

Hundreds of geosciences teachers are working on ways to turn summer field classes into something that translates through online videos, Hannula said.

“The National Association of Geoscience Teachers has been running workshops and planning groups to think about how to deal with especially the field work, taking students outside. One thing that you won’t see in Durango in June is the vans driving around that are full of geology students from other parts of the country,” she said.

Fort Lewis College psychology professor Brian Burke says he managed to bring in noted trial consultant Tara Trask, an FLC alumna, to help out his forensic psychology class with an online mock trial that has moved from face-to-face interaction in the classroom to online encounters.

Burke said it helps that classes this semester had nine weeks to build a community before they were forced to move proceedings online.

“We were able to set up a strong face-to-face relationship. And that relationship is helping us for these next few weeks because we know each other, we know each other really well,” he said.

Burke said his forensic psychology class has continued on with its mock trial.

Jurors can break off into their own Zoom meeting for deliberations.

He was even able to bring in Tara Trask, a renowned trial consultant and an FLC psychology major, to work with the class.

“Online class turned out to be a win,” he said. “She wouldn’t have been able to come out and be in our class. But she was able – especially since now a lot of her trials are postponed and she has some extra time on her hands – to dedicate some of her time to help the class.”


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