UNI professors bring classes outside to help fight COVID-19

Under the shade of a tree in a courtyard of Bartlett Hall, a group of masked students sat in a widely spaced semicircle of chairs arrayed around a podium where University of Northern Iowa languages and literature professor Grant Tracey gave a lecture for his Introduction to Film course.

Extension cords snaked across the grass to power a television Tracey used to show film clips and lecture slides. A microphone carried his voice to students in the back.

It was a creative way to tackle teaching in the time of COVID-19, and Tracey is one of several UNI professors taking their classes outside when the weather permits.

For Tracey, it’s a way to preserve the face-to-face interaction ensured by students’ return to campus, while maintaining the safest environment he can for both himself, as a 60-year-old, and his students.

“I just think there’s a bonding (with face-to-face interaction). I get to know the students better,” Tracey said. “I like being able to read body language and get a sense of how people are responding. It helps me as an educator.”

Tracey said his students have been positive and understanding about their new classroom.

“I'm sure they'd rather be in an air-conditioned room, but they understand and they've been awesome,” Tracey said. “I've been really pleased with the student’s response and support. I get a sense of appreciation that at least, for now, we’re on campus and trying to make the best of things.”

English literature graduate student Rand Khalil, who is taking Tracey’s Contemporary Literature graduate seminar, said the outdoor class feels safer than being in a building.

“It is also a great way to connect to nature and feel a bit more grounded during these strange times,” Khalil said.

Madison Jabens, a senior English major, agreed. “An outdoor classroom is the best option right now as it allows the space to social distance,” Jabens said. “It does make me feel safer overall.” 

And Tracey is not the only professor to take his class outdoors. 

Annette Lynch, professor and director of the School of Applied Human Sciences, is holding her Fashion Trend Analysis course outside of Latham Hall.

She wanted to provide the safest environment for students to learn and was inspired partly by a New York Times article detailing how Rhode Island schools used open-air classrooms to successfully combat the spread of tuberculosis in 1907.

“The students have enjoyed it,” Lynch said. “It is wonderful for dividing out into groups and then getting back together for discussion. Unlike an inside classroom that has spatial limits for group work, you can expand into the space outside and still keep the students safe, especially when  you use a portable chair system.” 

Within the outdoor spaces, both Tracey and Lynch maintained a seat chart and a record of who students were working with on group discussions. Also, students who had allergies were given other options for meeting if needed.