When Mount St. Mary’s University announced it would send students home and move classes online as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, Nick Hutchings had to think on his feet of how he would continue teaching his sculpture class.
The projects his students had been working on since the semester started could not be taken home, and he knew that many students didn’t own the tools to do intricate artwork away from campus. So he turned to clay.
“I was like, let me give them chunks of clay and they can kind of work with whatever tools they got, because forks, knives, and just their hands are a way they can manipulate clay,” Hutchings said.
He asked if each student could pick up their block before leaving and, this past Thursday, Hutchings taught his sculpture students their first class online.
The Mount, after first announcing that the campus would be closed for two weeks, changed its decision recently and said classes would remain online for the remainder of the spring semester due to growing concerns over COVID-19.
For the most part, Hutchings said teaching his sculpture class online is similar to being in the studio. The only difference is a lack of collaboration among students.
“They’re not getting the same conversation between one another while they’re working on it, so I’m trying to think of ways to bring back that connection, that community,” he said.
Ellen Salvatore, a senior at the Mount who is taking Hutchings’ sculpture course, agreed and said it’s also challenging not having Hutchings right there to help.
“The only difficult thing is we don’t have as much supplies ... [and] he can’t be there to assist us, but we can text him and call him if we have questions,” she said.
It’s been weird, but Salvatore also likes having time to work alone.
“[It’s] been a little bit more liberating because I’m not an art major and I was always like a little self-conscious. ... [Now] I can kind of mess up here and no one will see my screw-ups,” she said with a laugh.
The Mount administration and faculty were prepared for monthslong online courses from the beginning and had been preparing. After initially closing campus, Kraig Sheetz, dean of the university’s School of Natural Science and Mathematics, said they went into full training mode to get faculty and courses online.
In the span of six days, every single faculty member was trained and prepared to deliver online instruction. Sheetz said they did this because they wanted to make sure students kept learning.
“[Students have] got a lot going on, so we wanted to do our very best to get them back in, get a routine going, pick up their learning exactly where they left off,” Sheetz said. “That’s why we set ourselves a pretty aggressive schedule to get ourselves going.”
His 8 a.m. physics course met as usual on Thursday, but instead of seeing him in person, students saw Sheetz through a video conferencing platform set up in a classroom.
Sheetz was even dressed in his usual attire — shirt and tie.
One student asked why he was still dressing so professionally. Sheetz explained that he wanted as little to change as possible.
“I want this to be as close as what [students] are used to,” he said. “So even if it’s as silly as ... seeing me walk in with a tie on, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Barb Marinak, dean of the School of Education at the Mount, said this is critical to keeping students calm at such an otherwise stressful time.
“The more comfort we can offer them, the more they can relax and begin thinking about the continuation of their learning,” she said.
Getting courses online wasn’t a walk in the park, though. Some classes, like Hutchings’ sculpture course, and others that require hands-on learning, such as bench science, had to be tweaked and creative methods had to be implemented.
What made it easier, Marinak said, was that the Mount already had many tools and resources in place.
“We’ve sort of joked here over the past few days, thank goodness for the online MBA, because we were having all these conversations for a big grad program. ... We had the service ready to go,” she said.
There has also been tremendous amounts of help from vendors, partners and other educators across the country, Marinak said. For example, the Mount’s textbook providers said all digital versions of textbooks will be free for student use.
“Across the land everyone is sharing ideas. We have this incredible digital community that is literally online 24/7 right now, sharing ideas,” Marinak said.
As the semester continues online, faculty may have to tweak their syllabuses to fit with the changing environment. But Sheetz said learning objectives for students will not be compromised.
Marinak said university leaders are also developing a plan to offer end-of-year exams and will most likely use an online proctoring service that is already in place.
When asked how he is going to continue teaching sculpture, Hutchings said there will be a lot of critiquing sessions and working both independently with students and together as a whole class and that he may figure out a few more projects for them to complete.
He is not discouraged, though. This is what art is all about, he said.
“One of the things art teaches us is how to adjust, and recuperate, and go with the flow and find whatever resources and tools you have on hand and be creative with it,” he said.
Hutchings added that he hopes his class can serve as a therapeutic process and a mental break for students at an otherwise uncertain time.
“Hopefully this can be a place of therapy, a place of healing and a place of reprieve,” he said.