Monday, September 28, 2020

A Busy Semester of Teaching

 Our fall semester like no other is now at the 1/3 point.  The University of Utah is now going into a two-week "circuit breaker" during which classes will be fully online.  This circuit breaker has been planned for some time, long before the most recent spike in Utah coronavirus cases began and was developed, based on modeling, to reduce COVID infections on campus and provide a pause for the Vice Presidential Debate, scheduled for October 7.

I am teaching entirely online this semester, but have gone to campus a few times, including several days of in-office working while my power was out.  With a majority of classes online, it's pretty quiet, with little of the energy and excitement that you find on a large campus during the school year. 

My online courses are taught live.  It was a major effort to retool classes that I've taught in person for 25 years.  Here's a short list:

  • I learned canvas and had to move all my course materials to that format.  
  • I revised all my assignments and exams so that they are shorter and done weekly rather than more comprehensive and done less frequently.
  • Working with our computer support staff, we found ways to enable students to remotely make use of the visualization and analysis tools that we typically use in our computer lab.
  • We completely revamped my weather discussion class to make it tractable for students to do remotely via zoom.
  • I took several online "boot camp" classes to learn what can be done with Canvas and Zoom to facilitate learning.  I've revamped my class materials and am doing polling, breakout sessions, and remote visualization.  Note that I have done all of these things previously in person, so this change is about pedagogical change and more about technological change.  It also takes time, for example, to migrate polling from one software platform to another.  Additionally, one needs to find many work arounds to do polling in zoom that involves mathematics and visualization.  

Typically on Monday, I work to get everything setup for the next week.  This involves preparing an online quiz in canvas, an online learning exercise, updating all my class notes for the online approach, preparing polls, etc.  This keeps me about a week ahead on everything.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I focus on teaching two classes and holding office hours.  I've invented a new word, canvasophobia, to describe the anxiety that accompanies teaching online with multiple apps and hoping everything actually works.  

Mostly it has.  It's difficult for me to tell so far, but I think one of my classes might be better than it was in person last year, only because of the effort put into it.  The other one I'm not sure about yet.  Ultimately, how good the class is depends on the perspectives of the students.  

My teaching load this semester also includes the development of a third course, which is brand new and called Atmos 1000: Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth.  The course is being designed as a general education physical and life sciences course (internal University of Utah approval is pending) and is slated to be offered for the first time in the spring.  As you might guess, this is a course specifically designed for on-the-go students with a passion for snow, winter sports, and weather.  It is fully asynchronous, meaning there are no live lectures.  Instead, each week students read a section of my book, Secrets of the Greatest Snow on Earth, view a series of short videos that expand on key material, and complete a series of scenario-based activities.  Forget boring lectures.  The class should give you an education in science that you can use for your fun and adventures.

It's difficult for me to reproduce the Canvas materials in this blog, but here's an example.  In week 5, the focus is on snow climates beyond North America, including the European Alps, New Zealand Alps, Andes, and Japan.  Students read part of a chapter of my book and then view short videos that go deeper into the snow climate of the European Alps and Japan.

They also complete a short quiz and two learning activities.  In one of the learning activities, they are planning a ski vacation to Switzerland, and use Swiss snow depth data to evaluate the natural snow-sureness at major Swiss resorts.  They are provided with a variety of web resources to do this, and I've produce high-resolution snow-depth analyses for more detailed investigation.  Below is an example for Engleberg, with snow depth overlaid on a topo map.  In this instance, I've converted to US units.  Sad, but good for better evaluations.  

I now have 10 weeks of material finished.  Below is the Canvas home page, which provides a look at the major topic areas.  I just finished off the three avalanche sections and am beginning to work on the forecasting and climate change weeks.  The content for those hasn't been finalized, and I'm thinking of possibly making some adjustments to include something on glaciology and glacial change.  

We'll talk more about this class later in the semester, when hopefully it's fully approved and I have more content produced.  We are also working on ways to offer it to those who simply want to take it for fun without being enrolled as a University of Utah student.  I should have more on that soon as well.