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By Melanie Lefkowitz
  • School of Integrative Plant Science
  • Horticulture Section
  • Biological and Environmental Engineering
  • Landscape Architecture
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Spring 2020 was a semester like no other. Over the course of a few weeks, thousands of classes – lectures and seminars, laboratory and performance courses, capstone projects and veterinary clinics – transitioned entirely online.

Instructors navigated technical and logistical difficulties, as well as the shifting realities of a global pandemic. But amid the challenges, students and faculty found opportunities for innovation, connection and intellectual growth.

Here are snapshots of the two highlighted CALS courses that took creative approaches to their online formats. For the other four highlighted courses, read the complete Cornell Chronicle article

Virtual reality provides a sense of place

The cardboard goggles cost around $8. Their delivery took weeks. And when the students saw each other wearing them on Zoom, they laughed.

“It’s really low-tech,” said Jennifer Birkeland, assistant professor of landscape architecture in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “You use this cardboard viewer and stick your phone inside it, and a series of apps lets you capture virtual environments. Then the rest of us can log in and essentially look at each other’s ‘photospheres.’”

Normally, the master’s students in LA 5020, Studio Composition and Theory, would spend the semester redesigning a public plaza in Syracuse, New York. This semester they pivoted to reimagine spots near and dear to their hearts – and their homes. Virtual reality not only allowed them to see and experience each other’s projects, it helped energize students who were demoralized by the abrupt end of their time together on campus.

“It feels like were taking little field trips around the country – we’ve been to L.A., Oklahoma; I’m in Michigan, a few people are back in Ithaca,” said master’s student Monica Rourke, whose own project focuses on a stream through her property. “You have a sense of hopping around.”

The landscape architecture class, part of the first year of a three-year master’s curriculum, aims to help students understand spatial relationships through physical and digital drawing. Virtual reality, already widely used in architecture to present proposals or to experience international sites without traveling, provides a new way to help students reach their goals, Birkeland said.

“Virtual and digital environments are not necessarily superior, but at a time like this when nobody can go anywhere, it gives you a sense of place,” she said. “I’m just trying to get them to think like designers and be able to craft a narrative and build their argument, but I’m also trying to prepare them for that job interview after they graduate.”

As always, the students will present their final projects to a jury of professionals.

“Because Ithaca’s so remote, it’s often challenging to get outside critics to take two days off and get on the campus-to-campus bus,” Birkeland said. “Now, the fact that everybody’s home and everybody’s available means I can call really great designers and academics and say, ‘Hey, do you have an hour?’ and they say, ‘Of course.’ So the students are getting really awesome feedback.”

To some students, the isolation was a greater challenge than the VR. “We’ve all grown up in an age with rapidly changing technology, so I think we’re all used to incorporating new technology into our lives pretty seamlessly,” Rourke said.

The experiment sparked spirited debate about the pros and cons of digital tools, Birkeland said.

“There was a great discussion about the limits of technology, and how you might make virtual reality more sensory,” she said. “They’re starting to really see what tools are available, and how they can adapt and problem-solve. The VR has given them a little more agency. They’re inspiring each other.”

Redesigning bioinstruments

Creating an electronic device in a laboratory is not the same as designing one online.

“All of our students needed to do a project, which is a hands-on thing,” said Mingming Wu, professor of biological and environmental engineering in CALS, who teaches BEE 4500, Bioinstrumentation. “No matter how magical we are, that’s something we really couldn’t make happen.”

Alex Maag, a postdoctoral researcher who co-teaches BEE 4500, came up with perhaps the next best thing: online simulators allowing students to virtually wire and code Arduinos, the mini-computers that power their devices.

“They can create the circuitry, and in addition they can code, and it tells you whether it works properly or not,” Maag said. “So it essentially simulates exactly what they would have done if they’d created an Arduino unit for their project.”

Originally, Maag’s group of students planned to build robots that could use machine learning to assess whether crops were ripe by observing their colors. “Obviously, we can’t do that now,” he said. “We thought about it, but we can’t ship electrical components to one person, and have two other people working on development.”

Then he came across a universitywide call for coronavirus-related technology. Repurposing machines used to treat sleep apnea into ventilators, the students realized, would not only offer the same experience developing pressure-based sensors that they would have gotten from the robot project, it could potentially aid in the fight against COVID-19.

“I created a quick writeup for my group, and they immediately just jumped right on it,” Maag said. “They found this a very good use of their time in this current environment, and immediately started researching the best way to go about it.”

Two of the five projects in Bioinstrumentation are now coronavirus-related; another group of students is exploring the mechanics of how viral droplets spread in the air under different conditions.

“This is really an instrument course – we ask students to learn how to design and make a thing to solve a real-life problem, so my take is that they would have loved to go in the lab and see if it works,” Wu said. “It’s different than we anticipated, but it’s still fun. They’re still learning new things.”

Header image: Landscape architecture students use virtual reality goggles to view their “photospheres.” Photo provided

This article also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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