Open-air learning in the COVID-19 era

Heidi Harley, Ph.D., professor of psychology
Heidi Harley, Ph.D., professor of psychology

By Abby Weingarten

Embodying the spirit of collegiate social distancing, the New College First-Year Seminar “Animal Thinking” is taking students fully outdoors this fall.

The SET SAIL introductory psychology course is held on Wednesday afternoons at the Thatchroom—one of three open-air classrooms the College has created on campus, along with the Four Winds Café patio and the Caples Boathouse.

With a plethora of fans, extension cords and expansive Wi-Fi, the instructors (Heidi Harley, Ph.D., professor of psychology; Regina Rodarte, case manager for Student Success Programs; and Jillian Weisselberg, thesis student and psychology peer leader) are making it work, even in the Florida heat.

“Everything has changed because of the pandemic, which sure has offered plenty of opportunities for flexibility and openness and learning new things in 2020,” Harley said. “Teaching outside seemed like the safest thing to do for this course. We live in Florida, and we have such a beautiful campus, so it’s been absolutely gorgeous some days. I think it will be beautiful in the winter.”

Harley and her team have had to improvise in terms of logistics, finding ways to set up projectors, computers with microphones and speakers, pull-down screens and whiteboards in atypical spaces. But the point of the course is for students to learn about animal thinking within an ecological framework, which lends itself to an al fresco experience anyway.

Typically, Harley would take students to the onsite Pritzker Marine Biology Research Center and the adjacent museum at The Ringling, but indoor options for groups have been strictly limited this semester. The seminar is entirely in-person and 12 students are currently participating.

The course poses questions to students like “How does dancing help honeybees find food?,” “How do dolphins recognize each other?” and “How many caches of nuts does a Clark’s nutcracker have to remember?” Students are invited to learn about how animals process information, not only by reading and analyzing experiments, but also by investigating multiple species around campus—through wandering, rowing in Sarasota Bay, swimming and sharing.

“One thing they do in this class is what we call community explorations: I pair two different students together to go and find a specific kind of animal on our campus,” Harley said. “They’ve looked at insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish and mammals. It really is a rich campus for animals.”

The students gather their findings and learn how to compile them into professional research papers, with help from staff at the Center for Career Engagement and Opportunity (CEO), the Writing Resource Center (WRC), the Jane Bancroft Cook Library and the Student Success Center.

The outside setup for the course has posed plenty of unforeseen challenges, however—from not having enough bandwidth in the beginning, to dealing with sudden thunderstorms, to experiencing difficulty communicating through masks.

“When you’re talking outside, at a distance, with a mask on, it’s really hard to hear people,” Harley said. “But with our students being really good-natured, I think it’s working out OK.”

It is an experience that, in many ways, could only work at a place like New College.

“The students are together, outside, wearing masks and distancing, and also exploring the campus. We see manatees, dolphins, schools of small fish and mullet jumping out in the bay,” Harley said. “We have a lot of animals on the waterfront, and you can get in boats and find them. And you can check out paddleboards, kayaks, sailboats. It’s amazing. Students can have an adventure without ever leaving campus.”

For more information on SET SAIL seminars at New College, visit ncf.edu/academics/setsail

Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.

 


Founded in Sarasota in 1960, New College of Florida is the state's only legislatively designated Honors College of Florida. New College prepares intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement by providing a highly individualized education that integrates academic rigor with career-building experiences. New College offers 45 undergraduate majors in liberal arts and sciences, a master’s degree program in data science, and certificates in technology, finance, and business skills.

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