Forget textbooks — professors are using bells, Legos, fruit as online educational materials

P-P softball coach JoAnne Ferguson integrates hand signals in her Zoom calls with her team. (Courtesy of JoAnn Ferguson)

Like many professors, Pomona College music professor Genevieve Lee had to play it by ear last semester due to the pandemic — but she’s determined to start her Materials of Music class on a high note this fall.

Each student will be identifiable by the pitch of their given colored desk bell, making the class more interactive as well as circumventing some of Zoom’s shortcomings, according to Lee. 

“Usually, I have people sing and conduct,” she said. “We can’t really do things collectively as a group — we can’t sing together [or] clap a rhythm together — because of latency issues and the way Zoom projects the loudest sound. … So we have to do things more individually; a single sound will be able to work better.”

Lee said the bells will also help students learn the relationships between pitches, such as determining which students’ bells would produce a major third. 

“It’s not going to be a perfect system, but I still think it’ll be more fun than just sitting there watching Zoom because that’s pretty exhausting,” she said. “Music is all about not just what’s on paper, but applying it. So it’s not just listening but being able to perform it in some way, even if you’re not a trained performer.”

Additionally, students may use their bells to ask or answer questions, Lee said. 

Those who live in North America will likely receive their bell by mail, but Lee will help international students create their own makeshift bells, perhaps by tuning a glass of water. 

Actively designing community from afar

Students in Design Activism, a Claremont McKenna College course, will also find unorthodox learning materials in their mailbox: picture spray chalk, Legos, an herb garden set, feathers, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, tape, glue and other items. 

History professor Albert Park, whose expertise includes design and architecture, would normally teach this design and social activism course at The Hive, taking advantage of the creativity center’s cornucopia of crafts. After CMC announced its plans to conduct courses remotely, Park got to work ordering from Amazon and gathering supplies from The Hive to assemble design kits with his 10-year-old daughter.

“Legos are really good for building; it’s a toy, but it’s educational, in my opinion,” he said. “And we have one week [when] we learn about spray paint and activism. If they were here [in Claremont], we would have actually done spray painting, but I thought it would be best for them not to use actual spray paints in their homes. So I bought spray chalk, which looks as good as spray paint, but it’s not permanent.”

A cardboard shipping box with a handwritten label: Design Kit for Design Activism
History professor Albert Park is mailing his students kits including spray chalk, Legos and herb garden kits. (Courtesy: Albert Park)

Throughout the semester, students will also grow an herb garden, according to Park. In a project to reimagine the food system, they will create a meal including their herbs and trace the origins of their ingredients.

“It’s not that challenging to grow herbs, but they’ll see that there is a biological process behind it and then study the components of the meal,” Park said. “We want to focus on environmental racism and the food system.”

However, Park said his biggest challenge in shifting to online learning will be cultivating a community. To do so, he designed several community-building group projects.

One assignment is to build a mental health center for the Claremont Colleges, with each group member designing one section of the structure with Legos. 

“Each one of them will build one part of the building and then over Zoom collectively put it together,” Park said. “So that’s one way for them to have their own individual imprint on the design but also work together. It will push them to work and collaborate together.”

By the same token, Park’s Modern Korean History class will be mainly dedicated to project-based learning, such as predicting what a reunified Korea would look like in the future and inventing a K-pop group.

“There’s a cultural tradition and industry behind K-pop,” Park said. “[Students will] learn about that culture and industry and then come up with their own [K-pop group]. And I think singing will be optional. It would be fun if they could come up with lyrics.”

Through these group projects, students will work backward to critically examine and learn about the origins and development of contemporary issues and culture, according to Park.

Reinventing ceramics: papier-mâché, paper plates and Post-it Notes

Similarly, students taking Virtual Ceramics — taught by Scripps College art professor Amy Santoferraro — will also be using unconventional materials. 

“I feel especially trained for this because I work with found materials, and it’s very much a play-with-what-you’re-given sort of attitude that I’ve held from like age two till 40,” Santoferraro said. 

She said her students will not be working with clay because it’s messy and heavy to ship, and kilns are inaccessible.

“I’ll showcase the ceramic techniques through artists that employ them from all walks of ceramic art history, and we’ll participate in activities that emulate them,” she said.

A white ceramic dinner plate with assorted vegetables painted on it.
In art professor Amy Santoferraro’s Virtual Ceramics class, students use clay alternatives, such as paper plates and Post-It Notes. (Courtesy: Amy Santoferarro)

Projects include stop motion, soap carving, designing paper plates and creating buildings with Post-it Notes using bricklaying techniques.

“I always want to be the fun class, but I want this to be fun beyond us in front of the screen,”  Santoferraro said. “So, for instance, in [the plate] project, there’s like a million different prompts you could run down.”

Capitalizing off of this semester’s restrictions, Santoferraro will introduce the concept of mold making, traditionally a challenging technical process, by using papier-mâché instead.

“It’s a big hump to make molds in a studio,” she said. “People are always a little afraid. So I’m going to really break that down [into a] boot camp. Architects don’t build a building in their first Intro to Architecture class; they theorize and try to understand the principles.”

Inspired by Scripps College’s trees, Santoferraro will use fruits for her DIY mold making.

“I don’t think I bought a piece of citrus all year until we got kicked off campus,” she said. “I was just eating from the trees.”

Students will be asked to collect citrus, apply papier-mâché over it, and then cut it off, a similar process to traditional mold making.

Furthermore, Santoferraro will hold studio hours, in which students can drop into her Zoom room and watch her work with clay.

“I think it would be a disservice to never show them ceramic techniques,” she said. “I want them to take advantage of this very special situation to be in the studio of their professor.”

Santoferraro has also created interactive segments to add variety.

“There will be ‘Ask Amy,’ like, ask me anything about ceramics, my area of expertise, academia, what it’s like to be old — I’m 40,” Santoferraro said, laughing. “I’m also going to do ‘At Home with Amy Santo,’ a little bit like ‘At Home with Amy Sedaris,’ where I just sort of showcase objects that are ceramic or further illustrate what we’re talking about, and [I show] how I engage with them or show the underside of something that you would never see in a gallery.”

Physical education for the mind and body

Coach JoAnne Ferguson smiles and holds up a booklet on well-being.
In lieu of Ferguson’s Playground Games course, her Fitness and Wellness class will help students focus on personal well-being in quarantine. (Courtesy: JoAnne Ferguson)

Students seeking a breath of fresh air and an active community need not look further than physical education classes, according to Pomona physical education professor JoAnne Ferguson.

“[PE] is flexible, fun and it could be a way to build community,” she said. “We need to get out from behind the computers, exercise and sweat every once in a while.”

When Pomona announced its plans for a virtual semester, over 30 PE classes were immediately cut, including Ferguson’s Playground Games course.

So, she and her fellow physical education professors developed entirely new courses that responded to the pandemic, placing emphasis on wellness classes that focus on physical and mental health as well as leadership.

Coach JoAnne Ferguson smiles into her laptop camera. A tripod and easel of paper stand in front of her.
Coach JoAnne Ferguson prepares her Aerobics class setup from home.

“In my Fitness and Wellness class, I’m going to be focusing on well-being,” Ferguson said. “I’m calling it ‘success skills for life.’ [I’ll] teach them time management, energy management [and] emotional management during this time.”

Instructors have also adapted their courses to suit at-home arrangements, with students engaging in different workout methods depending on the equipment available at home.

Before and after workouts, professors can check in verbally with students or use technology such as the Volt Athletics app to do so. Students can also upload videos of a workout for coaches to comment on their form.

“If somebody … wants that constant touchpoint, that interaction, that coaching, that community around fitness, then certainly I hope they consider taking a PE class this fall,” Ferguson said.

Zooming forward

Because 5C professors have worked hard in preparing for a virtual semester, Park said the difficulties with online learning will be minimized. 

At first, Zoom “was very awkward to do,” Park said. “In a classroom setting, you really look at the bodies of each of the students to figure out, ‘Oh, I might jump in and say something here.’”

“So because you don’t have those social cues [on Zoom], there’s a lot of awkwardness and pauses. It’s a real problem.”

However, in groups of four or fewer, Zoom facilitates connections easier due to its convenience, according to Park.

“I feel like professors are more willing to devote more time to speaking with students online rather than physically,” he said. “I don’t usually talk to students over the summer; I don’t think professors usually do. But I’ve had quite a few Zoom meetings with students [this summer], and I’ve enjoyed them.”

Because students won’t physically be at school, Park said students may initially lose confidence in their independent creativity.

“When we’re not in that school environment, we can get easily distracted,” he said. “We also may lose confidence in what we can do because more often than not, confidence, in my opinion, is built and sustained through our interactions with others.”

But as long as professors provide a supportive intellectual setting online, students will adapt and develop their creativity, according to Park.

Still, he said that it’s crucial for professors, administrators and staff to acknowledge the disparity in resources and environments among students. 

“There are some students in certain positions where they don’t have adequate access to resources, and that’s going to persist, even though I think that the schools are trying to do whatever they can,” he said. “It’s important to know that we need to quickly respond to those challenges and be more in tune with the situation of the students, particularly in those environments where it’s not the best learning environment for whatever reason.”

The same is true for professors — while Park, Santoferraro and Lee aren’t anticipating Zoom participation by family members, Ferguson said her 8-year-old son might make some guest appearances in her aerobics class warm-ups.

“He’s told me he might think that’s fun,” she said. “He might just accidentally interrupt at times. I hope everybody will give me a little grace on that.”

Undeterred by the upcoming challenges, Santoferraro is finding silver linings. 

“I am looking forward to seeing how this changes my teaching forever,” she said. “This made me scrap everything and reconsider it, and it’s given me this real opportunity to be better prepared for the future and made me question everything I know and learned and have put out to students.”

And despite social distancing, the faculty has grown closer together, according to Santoferraro. 

“I already knew I was in the best place in the whole world when I arrived on Scripps’ campus,” she said. “But my fellow faculty — it’s been amazing to have this kind of support system.”

The compassion and empathy among faculty members is stronger than ever, she said.

“We have text threads and email threads and meetings where we’re just talking about how we genuinely care and want to make this awesome,” Santoferraro said. “In a way, this has helped us make stronger connections with one another, really see each other as people and [rely] on one another.”

“That’s a real gift.”

This article was last updated Sept. 1, 2020 at 12:23 p.m.

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