GCU News Bureau
It was the first day of virtual class, and Dina Higgins was in the driver’s seat in her pandemic-prompted kitchen home office.
The Grand Canyon University Mechanical Engineering Technology instructor was ready to reveal something about herself as she maneuvered through the typical first-day-of-school exercises in her Success in Science, Engineering and Technology class (UNV 112).
Even though in-person classes don’t start until Sept. 28, she stayed true to first-day protocols and mapped out the location of the emergency exit, “if we were in Engineering Building 1,” she said to the 29 students in the freshman-level course. Higgins breezed through class policy and expectations (“No late assignments, OK?”), prompted students to sign up on the Remind phone application, detailed course objectives and put the spotlight on the syllabus.
And then her big reveal: “I’m a safety nerd,” she said as she introduced one of the unique features of her class, called “Safety Minute.” It’s where the professional licensed engineer – she got her start in the Detroit auto industry – drops in a safety tidbit that students should know.
Today’s Safety Minute question: How many people die because of stair-related injuries annually in the United States?
“I’m going to say 500,” said one student.
Another piped in: “2,000.”
“All nice guesses,” Higgins said, then hit play on a safety video that revealed the answer: 1,588.
Higgins’ love of safety comes from her years working for General Motors, then for TRW in seat belt and airbag design.
Students learned she was a Mesa councilwoman, once met President Barack Obama, and also worked in wastewater management, a stable, not-often-thought-about career.
“When I say fun in wastewater, you probably think I’m crazy,” she said with a smile.
While students might have found those tidbits interesting about Higgins, what she found interesting about her first online class of the pandemic-adjusted semester was when one student asked fellow students where they were calling in from.
“There was snow falling in Colorado, I think,” Higgins said. “And it was cold in Oregon. A few people from Southern California were right down the street from each other (they went to the same high school).”
While there was no talk of snow in Deborah Haralson’s Systems Administration and Maintenance class (ITT 121), there was talk about computer requirements.
After students answered “How much RAM does your computer have?” in an online poll, the faculty lead in the IT and IT/Cyber programs emphasized that students’ computers need scads of horsepower to be able to do what needs to be done in class this semester.
“Sixteen gigabytes is the bottom of the barrel,” so those who answered 4 and 8 gigabytes need an upgrade, she said.
She also delved into Padlet and Discord – a couple of the applications students will need – as well as how to sign up for virtual office hours and her pandemic purchase: a Bluetooth-enabled digital piano that allows her to turn the pages of her music on her iPad by a press of the pedals.
Beyond the usual first-day-of-school banter, Haralson strived to make her class engaging and fun, even if she wasn’t physically in the Technology Building seeing her students in person.
Not only did she don virtual duds – flowing pink hair courtesy of a video filter – but when students were taking assessments or downloading apps, she filled the down time with some of her favorite videos, such as a rant against Pachelbel’s Canon in D by comedian/musician Rob Paravonian. Even a dancing Christopher Walken sashayed his way into the Zoom meeting, courtesy of Fatboy Slim’s classic “Weapon of Choice” video.
“No class I have taken at GCU stacks up to Professor Haralson’s,” said sophomore Cybersecurity major Alex Schaeffer, one of Haralson’s ITT-121 students. “She’s not only smart and knowledgeable but fun and witty. There’s never a dull moment in her class.”
Haralson said, “The key is to keep students engaged is by making them do stuff, even if it’s polls and surveys. Normally I’d do this in the classroom by watching them and their computers and making small adjustments to ensure I have their attention.
“With the online and blended components, I have to find different ways to do that. It’s definitely an adventure.”
Dr. Brandon Juarez started his class with a prayer for students who want to be elementary school teachers, “knowing this is an unprecedented time all of us are going through,” with some who expected to be on campus perhaps taking an online class for the first time.
“So, I just want to pray for your nerves, pray for the first-day jitter feelings and just pray the Lord sends you peace the rest of this day and this week,” said Juarez, an Assistant Professor in the College of Education.
He shared that he grew up in the shadow of Disneyland and could hear the nightly fireworks, but what inspires him now are Bible verses that urge young adults that they can make a difference.
“Regardless of your age, what an opportunity to set an example for your future students,” he said. “Regardless of your age, you get a chance to be a light for the Lord.”
He required students to share their video image on Zoom because, as future teachers, assessing body language is important. The students were all dialed in and eagerly nodded.
“Many of you are in your first class in the education program and may have a fantasy about what it looks like to be a classroom teacher,” he said. “We will solve some of those misconceptions you have but also look into how you can be a great classroom teacher.”
The first day of the semester may have looked a little different for Dr. Paul Koch and his music students, but that couldn’t stop him and other College of Fine Arts and Production faculty members from starting out on a positive note.
“My overall message today was basically looking at what opportunities can we gain as we’re all going through this together. I think it went pretty well.”
Koch, who threw in icebreakers and reviewed the syllabus, as is the usual protocol on the first day, was pleasantly surprised with students’ willingness to engage via Zoom.
“I tried to open it up like I would any year,” he said. “I was expecting that I’d have to tell some people to turn on their cameras or get out of bed, but I had no problems with that all. All the students were awesome. They were awake, attentive and ready for class.”
It was hardly surprising when Dr. Justin McLendon started his Christian Worldview 101 class with a prayer, but what might have surprised some of the first-year students in attendance was the introspection he offered along with it.
Some of you might not be Christian, he told them, but he emphasized how we are all fellow human beings and all have worth.
McLendon told the students a little bit about himself – where he lives, a little bit about his family, his hobbies, his passion for reading and baseball (he’s a St. Louis Cardinals fan). But his main goal “is to answer as many of your questions as I can.”
Not that any of the questions surprised him.
“This is my sixth year teaching CWV, so I’ve learned which questions to answer on day 1,” he said later. “My students seemed excited about the start of a new semester, and they’re looking forward to being on campus soon. All things considered, though it was an unusual beginning due to Zoom, the class began as always.”
Tracey Lauterborn made it clear at the start of Introduction to Computer Technology (BIT 200): Attendance is a must at the once-a-week class. It is synchronous learning (always at the same time and place, which for now is online), and she wants to interact with students directly.
When students come onto campus, they will alternate between the classroom and online to make the appropriate physical distancing possible, and that was the big question of the day – how that would be decided.
Even though it was a large group, she was pleased with the results.
“It went well,” she said. “They all remained attentive.”
Sophomore IT with an Emphasis in Cybersecurity major Garrett Ohrenberg couldn’t help but be attentive in Haralson’s ITT 121 class, with polls to take and videos to watch.
He already has moved back to campus (“It was a going-home feeling,” he said) and was excited to get back to class, even if it was online.
“A lot of my friends who I did not know were going to be in my classes, and then they just showed up on Zoom — it was really cool to see them again and talk with them.”
Classmate Alex Schaeffer added, “While not under the best circumstances, it was a great first day overall.”
Lana Sweeten-Shults, Mike Kilen, Rick Vacek and Ashlee Larrison contributed to this story.
GCU Today: First day of class makes the grade