Pivoting from laboratories to nature: Outdoor classes allow for in-person education to continue

by Trista Sobeck

UC San Diego is innovative and ahead of the curve. With the university’s goal to “Return to Learn”, the Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute is again at the forefront of thinking outside the box – or lab in this case.

Because the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world – and the United States—hard in 2020, learners of all ages were forced to learn from the safety of their homes and their laptops. This presents a huge challenge for not just the students, but for the educators too.

With many classes being hands-on and collaborative, some educators were forced to pivot from their typical learning environment such as indoor labs to embracing the out-of-doors, in almost bespoke locations.

Jack Silberman portrait

Jack Silberman Ph.D., HDSI Lecturer and Faculty at the Contextual Robotics Institute, took DSC 190A00 – Introduction to Robotics Perception and Navigation class (in conjunction with the Jacobs School of Engineering’s ECE MAE 148 – Introduction to Autonomous Vehicles) outside and out of the lab. And, unbeknownst to anyone at the time, it was largely a success.

Students continue to follow all safety protocols and of course, wear masks. The only issue Dr. Silberman has had, and even experiences firsthand, is foggy glasses and dressing warmly. “At this point, we all know it is either using a mask or not coming to campus,” he says. “Besides that, we follow the protocols to keep social distance, sanitize our hands often, and no face touching.”

This class is very popular with many students because of the hands-on industry-relevant application. “Students feel it is hands-on from the first day of class,” says Dr. Silberman. “They are getting a tactile experience. These students are interested in field robotics and for several of them, this is the first class where they can experience robotics and with a physical robot,” he explains.

Therefore, it is helping students stay socially active while reducing risks and taking the class they had looked forward to, including working in teams. Dr. Silberman is even getting thank you notes and emails from students who want to convey their excitement that his class is still in session:

“Hello Professor Silberman,

It looks like I was selected, and I am authorized to enroll in the course! I just wanted to say that I really want to take in-person labs next quarter, I’m going a bit crazy sitting at home all day. I think it would improve my overall mood and possibly even my performance in other courses….”

In this strange time, students and faculty must find collaboration and develop a positive attitude in their work. Whether it is enabling hands-on robotics classes or through socially distant, face-to-face communication while managing risks, it’s dire that we all remain hopeful, engaged, have positive attitudes. Of course, we need to continue to learn.

“This year is all about getting everyone comfortable learning while managing risks, stress, and uncertainties. Eventually, students will realize that this experience made them more confident in solving challenges and trusting that they have the grit to succeed in what comes next after UCSD,” Dr. Silberman explains. And because of his inventive thinking, fundamental learning won’t have to stop.

For questions regarding this article and other HDSI information, please contact HDSIComm@ucsd.edu.