My letter to students regarding the change to UMass’s reopening plan

Last night, the University announced a change to their reopening plan. In short, the goal is to reduce the number of students on campus and in the surrounding area. While I applaud the efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus, and the science-based decision making, I felt it was important to reach out to my students to both acknowledge the stress they were undoubtedly feeling with such a change so close to the start of the semester. I also want to point out that there was still an option for those students who had nowhere else to go as I felt that this message was (understandably) minimized in the announcement.

My letter to my students is below. I post it in case anyone else wants to use it as a template.

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A great pair of posts thinking about the equity and impacts of remote teaching practices

-Rebecca Barrett-Fox

Assume that your students are going to have a lot going on, that some of it will be unpredictable, and that none of it is your business to know–and yet you must design a remote course around it.

Rebecca Barrett-Fox

I stumbled on these during the semester and building my remote course. However, I did not have time at that moment to reflect on it here.

This is a really important article, I think. Particularly for those of us who teach large courses: the larger the course, the higher the larger variety of difficult situations your students are facing, and the harder it is to deal with them one-at-a-time. Thus, while such thinking should be standard practice, for large courses, the instructor MUST design in such a way to make the course as equitable as possible. In the remote-teaching world equity includes thinking about the home lives of yourself and your students and how those environments impact teaching and learning. Thinking about digital privacy is another factor that must be considered.

Trying to design a course around challenges that you don’t, and shouldn’t, know exist as well as around difficulties your students don’t know they have is tough, but something important to keep in mind as we plan for the possibility of remote in the fall.

Vevox as an interesting classroom tool

At the end of the Physics 132 course there is a lot of synthesis. The course centers around two fundamental questions: “What is an electron?” and “What is light?” Over the course of the semester, student explore these two ideas from several different directions with the goal of developing a holistic and multifaceted picture by the end of the semester. Along the way, we as a class encounter additional ideas: electric field, electric potential, and magnetic field.

Today, on the last day of class, I typically have students write everything they can think of about these two fundamental questions on small whiteboards and hold them up for me to see. Obviously, under the current circumstances, that is not possible. Enter the word cloud. Obviously, I had seen these all over the web, but I was first exposed to them in a pedagogical context through my TIDE Ambassadorship. In that experience, word clouds were presented as a nice addition to syllabi to make them more inclusive by presenting the objectives of the course in an alternative way. After adding them to my own syllabi, I got to thinking about other ways that these graphics could be used in the classroom.

Was there a way to have students construct a word cloud collaboratively that summarized the course? Vevox provides a method. In this free-to-students platform, anyone can create a word-cloud question even with the free account for up to 100 attendees. Due to the pandemic, Vevox is allowing all educators free access to a premium plan that allows up to 1500 attendees (clearly key for me!). Students simply go to and enter the meeting ID. The polls integrate seamlessly with PowerPoint through a plugin. I then asked students “Define an electron! Anything you can think of is good.
Words, equations, you name it. Think across all our units.
Remember to use a “-” instead of a space.” The question then opened on their devices and they were given two minutes to write as many things as they could think of. The result was the following word cloud.

The word cloud generated by my students collectively through the vevox platform.

You can see that most of the key components are there and we were able to discuss an lingering misconceptions. The students, in my view, successfully summarized the course – a much more active technique than just me doing it via lecture. This is a cool platform that actually works better for large classes! In a larger class, there is more probability that students will repeatedly say the same, correct, key points. I will almost definitely be using this more in the future.

Data Modeling Lab Based on COVID-19 for IPLS Students

When UMass-Amherst decided to go to remote learning after spring break, I needed one more lab for my Physics 132 – IPLS II course. This course has a traditional setup where the lab is run semi-autonomously from the “lecture” portion of the course. For the last two iterations, however, the lab has been run with a different focus based on data analysis. Thus, a lab focused on understanding the exponential growth patterns and fitting the parameters fit well with our education objectives and could be done with publicly available data.

While this may not be “physics” per se, I think that such a lab makes sense:

  • It uses all of the skills our students have been developing over the course of the semester.
  • It is topical.
  • It is probably of interest to the predominately life-science students who comprise the student population of 132.
  • It will hopefully help students see that the skills they learned in physics lab are not unique to physics, but instead valuable to all of science.

The lab we gave to students can be found here as as pdf. Feel free to use etc. If you are an instructor and would like access to the full suite of materials including the data we used, the solutions, and rubric, please complete this form and we will get them to you.

Remote version of Physics 132 in response to COVID-19

TL;DR: My syllabus addendum for the second half of the semester can be found at this link. For comparison and reference, the original syllabus is at this link. (I hate it when people bury the information you really need behind a bunch of stuff. Recipe websites, I am looking at you! I don’t want your entire life story.)

March 9-13: what a week before spring break! At the beginning of the week, things were very much up in the air. By Wednesday morning the other four colleges in the 5-College Consortium (Amherst, Hampshire, Mt. Holyoke, and Smith) had all closed for the semester, with UMass still undecided. Then, mid-day on Wednesday, we found out (via the Boston Globe!) that UMass would be doing remote learning for essentially all undergraduate courses for the two weeks after spring break until April 3. By Friday, it was announced that all courses (including graduate courses) were to go remote until the end of the semester and all faculty were to avoid campus as much as possible.

How to teach a two sections of a team-based learning class with a total enrollment of 458 remotely? Moreover, what about those students who may not have internet off campus, are in time-zones with 11 hour time differences, or now have new additional responsibilities? One of the things you quickly learn about teaching large courses: minimizing special cases is key. You simply cannot deal with each student individually. There are simply not enough hours in the week. You must find systems that work for most people giving you the bandwidth to deal with the individual students who most need your attention.

In my class, the material that can be placed into short videos already has: those videos form my prep homework. Replacing class with a series of video lectures and online homework would rob my students of yet one more community they have; I know for a fact that some of the teams in my course have become quite close. I cannot rob them of that right now.

So how to do this while at the same time acknowledging that many of my students are working under less-than-ideal circumstances? A combination of synchronous and asynchronous delivery modes. There are a few small carrots to attending the synchronous modes, but no punishments for not being able to attend them. This encourages students to attend the synchronous modes if they can, but allows for other options for those who cannot. Finally, I thought a “syllabus” was important, I want to be as clear to my students as I can to try to put their minds at ease.

We will see how this goes.