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Outdoor Classes Get Boost With New Mapping and Reservation System at Eckerd College

A professor and student stand on a lawn near a pond at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg
Kerry Sheridan/WUSF
Assistant professor of environmental studies Noelle Boucquey (left) and international business major Grayson Panter

Holding classes outdoors is one way to reduce the risk of coronavirus, once school gets back in session. Professors at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg have mapped out 27 outdoor spaces across the 188-acre campus, and established a reservation system, so that more classes can be held in the open air.

WUSF’s Kerry Sheridan spoke with Noelle Boucquey, assistant professor of environmental studies at Eckerd, and student Grayson Panter, a junior majoring in international business, about why outdoor learning is important in a pandemic.

Having classes outdoors is something a lot of people are thinking about now. How did you decide to research this and see how it would actually work?

Boucquey: Being in environmental studies, we are used to having classes outside anyways on a regular basis during normal times. So my colleague, Beth Forys, and I started thinking, well, we'd like to have probably more classes outside during COVID era. And especially if we're having students come back to campus. So let's start thinking about all the places that have some shade and could be amenable to having classes outdoors.

And we went around with a little wind meter and checked the Wi-Fi and the shade cover, and just kind of mapped out where all of the potential outdoor locations would be.

And then we also decided to survey the faculty because we knew, of course, that we were interested in teaching outside but we didn't know if, say, English professors would be interested in teaching outside. So we did a survey and it turned out that about 85% of faculty were interested.

And managing the reservation system? Who's handling that?

My colleague and I are handling that. She has created a really nice map with all of the locations and numbered them. When you click on a location, photo of the site will pop up. And all of the information about wind, shade, Wi-Fi, the substrate, whether it's grass or cement, all that information comes up so people can look at that beforehand.

So tell me what are some of the important aspects of being outside? What are the things you need to guard against?

Certainly rain is a question. I think September will be the most challenging month because it tends to be the rainiest. So some of the locations we are getting tents for. If someone was going to be planning to be outside every day, they'd have to just check the weather and possibly tell their students, like, today might be a Zoom teaching day.

Would you have any advice for other professors who may be considering this? Sounds like a great idea, but how do I do it? How do you start?

The first step which was actually really fun, is to get to know your campus landscape better. We tromped all over campus, looking in every corner for spaces that could possibly be used for teaching. And we found some really unexpected spots. And many college campuses are pretty sprawling, and probably have little hidden areas.

We're even going to be using part of a parking lot that has some great shade, and we're going to rope it off, and there's actually an ocean view from it. So we are definitely lucky here at Eckerd. But I think every campus has probably has hidden locations that could be used and you just have to start thinking more creatively about them.

So you mentioned a lot of professors are interested in this. Tell me about the student view, would you prefer to be outside for your classes?

Grayson Panter: I mean, I think it's definitely something that draws students to Eckerd in the first place. We're outside a lot. We don't have a student center where students hang out outside when you hang out. You don't necessarily go to a large congregated event that's indoors. So it's kind of been our motto – actually it is our motto -- to ‘Think Outside.’

Is it a safety concern too? Is it does it make you feel better safety-wise to be outside?

Panter: I think for most students it does. Because we know that outdoors already makes it a safer environment, just not being in one indoor space as well as we feel like we can spread out more outdoors. Also, I think it would alleviate a lot of stress for the students because being outside already kind of alleviates the stress. And just knowing that you're not putting yourself in a more dangerous situation.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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