Do-it-yourself newscasts keep engineering students engaged

Three images from Zoom calls are shown: Fetterly poses with a newsroom backdrop behind him, while the other students speak into microphones.
Students who have participated in the CIVE 340 newscasts include (clockwise from left): Brennan Fetterly, Nicole Dy Ning and Benny Li

2020 November – A UVic engineering course called “Sustainable Water Resources” is brimming with ways to keep students engaged in the midst of the pandemic that has pushed most classes online.

Every week during a virtual class, 70 civil engineering students enrolled in CIVE 340 are treated to live “newscasts” produced by small teams of classmates, who take turns researching and reporting on recent water-related stories they find in the media.

The lively newscasts – sprinkled at times with weather forecasts, stories about lost pets and jokes – are just one way that instructor Tom Gleeson is finding to keep students interested and interacting in an online setting.

The associate professor also holds regular Zoom polls during class to instantly test students’ understanding of the course content, and posts pre-recorded explanatory videos hosted by his bow-tied alter ego, Dr. H20.

“CIVE 340 is a unique class because Tom is consistently trying new methods of getting through to us,” says Benny Li, one of the first to participate in a student newscast. “He’s also very open to feedback and frequently checks in with students to find what’s working and what isn't.”

Brennan Fetterly, whose newsroom backdrop was a class favourite, says the newscasts are a way for students to relate what they’re learning to larger world events in a way that’s both educational and entertaining.

“Whenever a news story is being presented, the class group chat is always exploding with encouragement and laugh emojis,” says Fetterly. “It’s easy just to read something on a slide and then regurgitate it during an exam, but to be able to apply it to the real world and have fun while learning really helps in understanding the material.”

Gleeson says he has asked students in previous years of CIVE 340 to read water-related news clips in class, but this year’s online format has actually increased the level of enthusiasm.

“What’s been cool this year is that it’s been more creative and more expressive than other years,” says Gleeson. “I think it could be something to do with the medium – being on Zoom rather than standing at the front of a classroom. There have been a lot of corny jokes.”

Nicole Dy Ning, who logs on from her home in Vancouver, explains that students aren’t pressured to appear on camera. Those who aren’t comfortable presenting can participate by providing examples of water stories that recently appeared in the media. A student whose story idea is chosen by a team get extra points, as do those who report the news.

“I look forward to watching the student newscasts every Thursday,” says Dy Ning, who, like most of her classmates is in fourth year. “I’m excited to see what other students come up with and it’s also interesting to hear the news they research.”

Dy Ningsays students can also win bonus if a water-related song or movie title they post to the course’s online forum receives the most votes from their classmates.

“It definitely helps that Tom tries to engage us – not only because the class is online but also because it’s the first class of the day at 8:30 a.m.,” she says.

Li agrees that the opportunities to win bonus points are a great way to spark interaction, learning and engagement.

“For example, he recently asked us to download an augmented reality app from the World Wildlife Fund so we could understand how certain factors change the water and land around it,” says Li. “We wrote our thoughts about how it relates to the class content and received bonus marks accordingly.”

The students say that Gleeson’s pre-recorded videos, which work through some of the course’s more complex calculations, are especially helpful. Hosted by Gleeson’s alter ego – known as Dr. H20 – the clips make use of a lightboard, which allows him to face camera while solving problems.

“The Dr. H20 videos are a kind of a spin on the mad scientist, who takes you through the practice problems,” says Fetterly. “Tom gets into character really well, so they’re pretty fun to watch.”.

2020Nov25 AT