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Parks College Transitions to an Online Environment

Zoom with Cor Jesu Academy students during outreach activity

Dr. Chris Carroll teaches Cor Jesu Academy high school students over zoom during an outreach event. 

Parks students, faculty and staff have adapted to working virtually over the past nine months.

Moving Courses Online

In mid-March, Saint Louis University extended its spring break to two weeks.  Within that extra time, faculty were directed to explore the possibility of moving courses entirely online.  At Parks College, professors hit the ground running, spending countless hours working to ensure their students’ online experience was as educational and rewarding as possible in this new setting.  During the extended Spring Break, McDonnell Douglas Hall was void of students, but faculty and staff members were there working with each other to share knowledge about online learning and reaching students remotely.  One program at Parks helped assist the college to a virtual teaching environment.

The Aviation Science Department at Parks was already experienced in teaching online.  The department’s Masters program has been an online-only program since its approval in 2010, and when the demand for an online PhD program arose, that program followed a couple years thereafter.  In addition to its entirely-online graduate programs, the department began offering an online BS Aviation Management concentration with the School for Professional Studies in 2012.  Because the department and its faculty already had the skill set of online teaching, they helped lead a series of workshops to assist the other programs at Parks during the University’s mode shift to virtual learning.  

To help prepare other Parks College faculty, many of whom had never taught a course online, for the shift to remote learning in March, the Aviation Science program hosted workshops teaching the ins and outs of Blackboard and other online course infrastructure.  The workshops were organized (within a few days of the University’s decision to the remainder of the Spring semester online) and hosted by Aviation Science Department Chair Steve Magoc and professor Terry Kelly, PhD, along with Parks Student Services Coordinator Shellie Sanford, EdD.  Dr. Sanford also has an extensive background in teaching online courses.

During these workshops, attending Parks engineering faculty were educated on various course development tools, course organization, and best practices for engaging students online.  Roughly 40 Parks College faculty and staff attended the workshops about moving courses online, with many attendees reporting an appreciation to learn about virtual teaching prior to the semester shift.  

After the Spring semester concluded entirely remote, faculty prepared for a hybrid learning environment in the Fall.  Most Parks students returned to campus for in-person classes, though many opted to remain home for the semester and learn entirely online.  Today, professors are teaching students both in-person and online, simultaneously.  Students on campus are assigned A or B schedules; they go to their class in-person during the A-days, and stay in their dorm or apartment to learn remotely on the B-days.   Walk through the halls of MDH, and you’ll hear questions from both students sitting physically in the classroom space, and questions from students come through the computer audio.  Zoom has been an indispensable resource for faculty and students during this year of hybrid teaching and learning.

Virtual Outreach Programs

As courses moved online in late March, so did the entirety of day-to-day college operations and outreach.  Spring is typically when high school seniors decide on and commit to the university they’ll attend in the fall, and with that, comes campus visits and preview days.  Unable to host families in person on campus, those events moved online as well.  Parks College was one of the first of the University to host a Virtual Admitted Students Day on April 3rd. Each Engineering program and the Aviation Science and Physics departments hosted virtual sessions via Zoom for admitted students which included a welcome message from Dean Sabick, an overview of the academic program, and an opportunity to hear from current students.  The Virtual Admitted Student Day sessions attracted nearly 40 admitted students and their families, and recordings of each session were made available to all admitted Parks students.  The college has also been working in conjunction with the Admissions Office to take part in other virtual visits throughout the summer.

Some regular summer activities also adapted to a virtual experience.  At the beginning of June, Dr. Scott Sell (BME) and Dr. Chris Carroll (Civil) hosted a virtual ‘visit’ day to Parks for students from Cor Jesu Academy.  Ahead of the day, Parks delivered alginate solution kits and K’Nex building materials to each of the students.  On the visit day itself, the students logged in to a virtual classroom from their respective homes, and Dr. Sell and Dr. Carroll led the students through lab experiments.  

In mid-June, the Electrical and Computer Engineering program hosted 22 high school-aged students for its first ever Virtual Robotics Academy.  Most of the campers were participating from the St. Louis area, but there were also campers in Louisiana, Kentucky, New York, and Virginia.  Ahead of the camp start date, Parks shipped students robot kits to each participant, and for eight hours each day during the week, students logged in to Zoom to be instructed in real time by Dr. Kyle Mitchell (ECE) and Dr. Will Ebel (ECE) on how to build and code their own personal robot.  The virtual classroom space allowed students to get to know each other and form connections with their peers also interested in robotics.  Joining the Zoom sessions throughout the week were guest speakers from different engineering programs at Parks and engineers from industry, including Dr. Andy Hall (BME), Dr. Srikanth Gururajan (AE), and graduate students from Dr. Jenna Gorlewicz’s CHROME Lab (ME).

As in-person campus visits for prospective students are still suspended this Fall, various Parks engineering, physics and aviation faculty are participating in a weekly webinar series that showcases the lab spaces around the college.  Each week, high school students and teachers have joined the webinar to check out the latest research being conducted, hear from faculty and current students within each program, and ask questions about the virtual lab tour.  All webinar sessions have been recorded, and are accessible on the Parks College YouTube page.

Most Staff Work Remotely

The staff of Parks College have also found new ways to adapt to a virtual work environment.  Student Services Coordinator, Shellie Sanford, has led virtual interviews in the spring and fall for various scholarships and student organization positions.  Parks students adapted quickly to conducting their education virtually, and the remote interview processes have also continued without disruption.

Sanford said, “The students we interviewed displayed passion, perseverance, leadership, and a commitment to service, and the interview committee members were moved by the students’ statements and stories. Many of the students interviewed touched on how much they enjoy mentoring their Parks College peers and that they appreciate the collaborative spirit within the Parks College community.”

It is that collaborative spirit amongst students, faculty and staff at Parks which aided in the college’s quick adaptability to virtual learning and work in the Spring and its continued dedication to its students this Fall.  It will also serve the college moving forward into future uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 Pandemic.