UChicago community finds new ways to learn together

Faculty, students, University community connect as Spring Quarter and remote learning begins

The coronavirus pandemic has created unprecedented challenges for the University of Chicago community—in Hyde Park and beyond. 

As Spring Quarter begins, students, faculty and the wider University community are finding innovative ways to collaborate while connecting an intellectual community that is now spread around the globe. Below are stories of how remote learning is happening across the University.

‘My desk is my safe haven’

When Eliana Melmed returned to Los Angeles two weeks ago, the third-year student completely rearranged her room to make it feel more like home. The top priority was setting up her desk to prepare for the University of Chicago’s transition to remote learning during Spring Quarter.

“My desk is my safe haven. This is how I’m able to stay organized,” said Melmed, a public policy major. “There are five people in my house doing school or work online now, and it’s important to me that I have a designated place where I can take classes and get my work done.”

So with her highlighters and bullet journal at the ready Monday morning, Melmed logged onto her first online class about statistical methods and applications. Prof. Peter McCullagh’s lesson used real-world data to analyze COVID-19, including a study on the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment in Chinese patients.

For a different class project, Melmed may examine the effects of hand washing in elementary schools during the pandemic. “It’s cool to see how the classes have been tailored to reflect the current situation,” she said.

Although her dog Luna has proved to be “a very high-energy study buddy,” Melmed keeps a framed picture of her apartment mates from Hyde Park on her desk. Even 2,000 miles away, UChicago is still very much on her mind.

Law scholar’s early lessons from Zoom

Prof. Randal C. Picker is a veteran of online teaching. Four years ago, he became the first scholar at the Law School to launch a massive open online course, spending roughly 40 hours in a studio recording lectures on the relationship between law and technology. But standing under those bright lights didn’t give him a way to interact with students.

“It’s like being on stage,” he said. “You can’t really see what’s going on.”

That hasn’t been the case so far during his Spring Quarter classes at UChicago. Along with his Law School colleagues, Picker began remote teaching last week, and said early lessons have gone “unbelievably well.” After holding nearly 30 practice calls on Zoom, what stuck out about the software was the way it helped him connect to the 32 people in his Network Industries class.

For Picker, the “light bulb” moments of the physical classroom have translated to the computer screen.

“We’re doing it together,” he said. “When I tell a joke, when I say something funny, I can see them. I can’t hear them laugh because they’re muted, but I see them laugh. When I go one-on-one with a student, I can see exactly what they’re getting and what they’re not getting.”

At-home science for students

In the physical sciences, instructors had to get creative for courses that normally involve work in the laboratory.

The Department of Physics supplied the 12 students in PHYS 22600: Electronics—a hands-on course on experimental methods in electronics taught by Prof. Woowon Kang—with at-home kits of equipment to build electronic circuits. Students will use these components to complete the course’s twice weekly labs, with the help of the course’s teaching assistants through Zoom.

“When the physics department e-mailed to say they were mailing electronic kits, I was thrilled,” said chemistry major Hannah Morin, a fourth-year in the course. “I have wanted to take electronics since I started at UChicago because of its practical and applied focus. Now all this seemingly magical equipment—this equipment that makes the modern world function—is just sitting on my desk, waiting to be mastered. It’s pretty great.”

Instructors for general chemistry and organic chemistry taped videos of the experimental lab procedures for each course before the University closed, and students will get data to analyze for their lab reports, said Prof. Scott Snyder. As for lectures, some professors are carrying out live lectures; others are recording short segments by topic. “We’re also trying to think creatively with virtual office hours and problem-solving sessions,” he said.

Snyder hoped that long-term, taping more lectures could benefit teachers and students, and that work from this quarter could have future benefits. “Making them available as extra material might be helpful for students, if they want to hear a particular concept explained a different way,” he said.

Night Owls philosophy series expands reach

As Winter Quarter drew to a close, Assoc. Prof. Agnes Callard thought about the soon-to-be-empty UChicago campus. 

For more than two years, the UChicago philosopher has hosted Night Owls, a late-night discussion series that touched on everything from love and divorce to violence and death. A College alum, Callard mourned what she saw as a rapid constriction of campus life—and feared that “soon there would hardly be anything left of our shared intellectual environment.”

Instead of canceling Night Owls, she’s expanding it—and moving it online. Every Thursday for the next nine weeks, she will host UChicago colleagues, visiting scholars and even her own children for live-streamed discussions.

“I thought this might be a way to invite people who have previously been excluded,” Callard said. “My instinct was simply that, somewhere, there should be more instead of less.”

Engineering a new podcast for the public

In Sr. Lect. Borja Sotomayor’s Introduction to Software Development class, collaboration is key, with undergraduates working together on a shared project. To provide his students with real-world guidance, Sotomayor typically invites software engineers from Google and the local tech industry to discuss their work habits and careers.

But UChicago’s transition to remote learning gave him the opportunity to try a novel approach: a podcast. Sotomayor will host a 20- to 30-minute chat with a different developer, discussing topics such as working in teams, giving and receiving feedback on your code, and the business side of software development.

In addition to supplementing students’ online lectures and discussions, Sotomayor hopes the podcast will resonate beyond the UChicago community.

“Whenever I listened to guest talks from previous years, I always thought they were doling out really amazing advice, and it would be great if other students at UChicago and other universities could hear it,” Sotomayor said. “And while we were previously constrained to people who were available to come on campus, the podcast opens up the possibility to talk to developers all around the world about their experiences.

“It’s effectively uncharted territory for me, which is part of what makes it fun.”

‘Move together, breathe together’

The Committee on Theater and Performance Studies is creating opportunities for the UChicago community to connect—as well as move and dance throughout the quarter.

Partnering with its company-in-residence Lucky Plush, the Virtual Dance Lab is offering more than two dozen weekly online classes in multiple styles of dance—including contemporary, breaking, salsa, ballet, house, among others—as well as yoga, improvisation and classes for kids.

“In this time of social isolation, it’s more important than ever to connect with community in an embodied way,” said Julia Rhoads, UChicago director of dance. “With classes throughout the day, Virtual Dance Lab offers people of all ages and levels to move together, breathe together and share in a joyful, physical experience."

The program aims to support instructors and administrative staff, all of whom are artists whose work has been affected by COVID-19. The classes are free to UChicago students, faculty and staff.

—This article includes contributions from Susie Allen, Emily Ehret, Danika Kmetz, Louise Lerner, Eliana Melmed, Rob Mitchum and Jack Wang.