#15: Field & Screen

Imagine a traditional college class. Chances are, you’ll picture an instructor standing in front of a chalkboard, whiteboard, or projection screen in a room or auditorium of seated students taking notes. At the same time, you know from your own educational experiences that learning isn’t limited to to lectures, discussion, lab, or field trips during the scheduled meeting time.

For example, readings and homework assignments completed outside of the classroom are included in the time-based calculation of credit hours. Depending on the subject, instructors may also include independent activities designed to move students out into the world as a way of deepening their understanding of the topic at hand.

Understandably, faculty teaching for-credit distance education courses have tended to follow the familiar format, with the primary difference being how the instruction time activities are delivered — live-streaming or pre-recorded. Yet, educators often struggle with how to include fieldwork, broadly defined, when the course is delivered in the virtual classroom, if they even recognize this type of assignment as an option.

With video conferencing fatigue taking a toll on students and faculty alike, what better time to consider adding some physically active learning assignments to your syllabus?  Our guest for this week’s episode, Jim Egenrieder of Virginia Tech, provides inspiration and tips for integrating Field & Screen. 


KIERAN: Hello, I’m Kieran Lindsey…

DAN: … I’m Dan Marcucci, and this is Wired Ivy.  We have combined 20 years of experience in the virtual classroom.

KIERAN: Dan lives in Pennsylvania, I live in Missouri, and we work for a university in Virginia. As part of a geographically distributed team we know from personal experience that online faculty and staff benefit from having access to their peers.

DAN: You may have been teaching online for a long time now or relatively new… you may have been thinking about a move to online or suddenly find yourself doing it… regardless, you are welcome in this virtual salon.  

KIERAN: Our goal is to create a collegial community for real academics working in virtual classrooms… a safe, supportive space where we can learn from one another and share what we’ve figured out.


KIERAN: Education has been tethered to location, both practically and in language, for generations. We take it for granted that learning happens when we GO to school and we all know the drill–enter the classroom, claim a desk, settle in, and wait to be taught. Even when homework — and that’s another location-centric education term — even when homework accounts for a significant or a majority of the time students spend on class assignments, our perception of formal education remains anchored to campus, classroom, and desk. 

As college instruction moved out of the physical classroom, off-campus, and eventually onto the Internet, the term “online course” has come to gain wide acceptance, perhaps because it follows the place-based nomenclature protocol. Even though our students aren’t all in one place anymore, may actually be globally dispersed, and the activities we assign don’t all require wifi and a screen. We know this, inherently, and yet It’s still relatively rare for educators to consciously cut — make that unplug — the proverbial power cord and ask students to step out into the world.

Our guest today is an exception to that rule. Active, project-based learning and an innovative approach to serving students, are fundamental components of his course design and delivery… whether the classes are officially listed on the timetable as virtual or face-to-face. 

The ideas and examples you’ll hear are grounded in literal field work for natural resource management and environmental conservation disciplines. However, you’re sure to take away plenty of ideas for how to integrate field and screen in your own courses.

But before you power down and head to the great outdoors… be sure to check out show notes, transcripts, guest bios, and links to referenced resources on our website, wiredivy.org. You can also subscribe to the Wired Ivy newsletter there and receive an email alert each time a new episode drops. Also, connect to your peers on our LinkedIn Group and follow us on Twitter, @wiredivy. 

Ok then, let’s go!

[Door opening and closing, ambient outdoor sounds]

DAN: Our guest today is Jim Egenrieder. Jim is one of our colleagues at the online master of natural resources program at Virginia Tech, where he teaches courses on watershed and biodiversity stewardship. Jim is also a member of the research faculty in the Center for the Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, where he’s involved in STEM education and technical workforce development. And he serves as Director of the university’s Qualcomm Thinkabit lab. 

Jim was one of the first Google certified educators. He’s a certified scuba and mixed gas diving instructor. And somehow he finds time to run his research farm in Green Spring, West Virginia, with his wife Diane Allemang.  

Even though we all work together, we’re so glad for this rare chance to actually talk together.  Welcome to Wired Ivy, Jim.

JIM: I’m very glad to be here.

KIERAN: Jim, it sounds to me like you’re a man in need of some hobbies.

JIM: [Chuckles]  Yeah.  Gather no moss, that’s right.

DAN:  Indeed.

KIERAN: Well, you and I have been colleagues since 2007. You may have been part of the program before that, but that’s about the time that I came on. And I think Dan has known you for at least five years, is that right?

DAN: Yeah, I think I met you Jim, that when we had the faculty retreat up in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. So that was, yeah, maybe a little bit over five years ago was the first time we actually met face to face. Maybe the only time we’ve met face to face, actually. Tell us about the courses you’re currently teaching as part of the online program.

JIM: Well, there are two. A Watershed Stewardship course, and that’s evolved over time. And it was actually the first course I started teaching with the natural resources program. The newer course, that I think I’ve been teaching now for five years or maybe four years, is Biodiversity Stewardship. Both are functionally stewardship and advocacy courses. Both are taught asynchronously online, and perhaps the thing that I have found to be the most comfortably innovative is that they are project-based.

DAN: Very good. I’m wondering if you are intentionally trying to create an online community, a learning community in the courses, or if that’s not an important variable for you.

JIM: Yes. And it works in, in two ways. One is what educators might even call a professional learning community, where you find people that have similar goals, similar needs, or at least parallel goals and parallel needs, and you collaboratively help each other. They’re a ready audience for a question or query, or a solicitation for an example, or an outline, or a prototype. 

A second community that I like to think I’m creating through the artifacts solicited in the course as part of the assignments is that each student builds out their own community where they live work or explore.

KIERAN: So Jim, when you and I first joined the master of natural resources faculty, this was a face to face program

JIM: Correct.

KIERAN: …based out of the Falls Church, Virginia, campus. You’re one of only a few instructors who actually made the transition from literally a brick and mortar building to the virtual classroom as this program evolved so we definitely want to talk about that. 

I remember a specific conversation you and I had after the decision was made to officially shift from what had become a combination of in-person and online courses to a fully online curriculum. You were supportive, you were enthusiastic actually, but also sincerely disappointed that the students were going to miss out on having the field work opportunities that they’d had in your classes.

Do you remember that discussion? 

JIM: Very well, because it was a transformative time for me as an educator. I’m not sure I ever shared with you that this course came about through an internal competition within the graduate school to provide more meaningful, transformative graduate experiences, particularly in interdisciplinary graduate studies.

KIERAN: No, I didn’t know that.  That’s the watershed course. 

JIM: That’s correct. Thank you. And I wrote a grant proposal with Rosary Lalik and David Trauger. Rosary Lalik ran the education department, David Trauger ran the Natural Resources Department at our campus, and a few other folks in environmental engineering. That course was, functionally, 12 three and a half hour field trips in the summer where I took them to 12 watersheds and used that context to teach what I had in mind at the time. 

KIERAN: Then you adapted from an all field trip design to classroom augmented with field trips, right?

JIM: Correct.  When I was asked to start teaching it on Monday evenings on campus at the Northern Virginia Center, I thought, Oh wow, that’s disappointing. You know, the field trips were what everybody loved most. So I supplemented it with optional Saturday field trips. I only did a few of them, maybe five or six.

But what started happening was, well, first I learned that some people were concerned about coming because of their kids at home, or that was time they wanted to spend with their significant others, etc. And I just, on a whim said, well, bring them along if you like, and if they would like. Well, many did. I realized then that these field experiences were very important. 

Remembering our conversation explicitly… you didn’t say it in a harsh way…

KIERAN: [Laughter]

JIM: …but I remember the feeling of, well, Jim, you have to, because our whole program is going in this direction. And I had a lot of windshield time that weekend. It just struck me that, “Hey, why not create this environment where my students study whatever watershed they want, wherever in the world they want, and they take me and the rest of the class on explorations of their watershed.” 

KIERAN: Right, right.

JIM: And it was the best thing that ever happened because it is so thoroughly consistent with the gold standard of project based learning. I am overdue in writing about this and, and how it could be a model for others who are struggling with whether it’s relevance or whether it’s student engagement, student autonomy, voice and choice, all those kinds of things that are part of meaningful transformative graduate education.

KIERAN: You’re right, I didn’t offer online as a suggestion or a choice. We were moving in that direction, because our face-to-face classes weren’t making anymore.

JIM: That’s right. There were times when I had as.. I had less than 10.

KIERAN: Exactly. That wasn’t our Director’s plan for how this was going to play out. The idea was that adding online courses would expand the student audience by expanding access to those who were beyond commuting distance. And it did, but David assumed current students would continue to enroll in the classes taught evenings in Falls Church. Adult learners are pragmatic, though. They choose online because it’s a better fit for their lives, not because they dislike a classroom environment. Once we started offering the same classes in an online format the audience for face-to-face classes dried up.

JIM: Oh yes, mmmhmm.

KIERAN: I knew you weren’t wary of the technology or worried about your ability to shift the classroom portion of your current class to online delivery. You were just sad that students wouldn’t be able to have field experiences anymore. So I asked, why can’t they have field experiences? Our students are adults, they have jobs and families and other grown-up responsibilities… do they really need a chaperone?

You paused and said, “Hmm… Yeah. Let me think about that.”  

And I was just so delighted, because in a follow up conversation after you’d run the course online a couple of times, you said, “It’s so much better now! Students are presenting on watersheds from all over the U.S. and on other continents, not just those around DC. So the whole experience is much richer now!”

And that makes sense, right? Learning doesn’t have to be limited to what happens when they’re looking at a screen.

JIM: Very true, and very important.

KIERAN: I think it will help listeners to hear about specifics, even if they aren’t teaching an environmental subject. Can you tell us what kinds of field work you HAD been doing with students, face-to-face, and what you have students who enrolled in your online courses do now?

JIM: The trips that I organized locally feature many of the same activities and explorations just in different different settings. So some of it was, in that case, necessarily comparative. How does this watershed differ from this watershed? What might be influencing this versus that? 

KIERAN: Once you gave students the freedom to choose their watershed-of-interest, did it diversify what they wanted to focus on within that watershed as well?

JIM: It gave me an opportunity to give them flexibility and choice based on their personal, professional, and their academic goals. That was actually the best discovery of all… some people have different reasons for taking the course in the first place. Some want to get a big picture of advocacy and stewardship and they wanted to take on big, big watersheds. Sometimes they even say, I want to study the Chesapeake Bay and I say, Okay, but I want you to know that’s a very different experience than if you study a smaller river or even a micro watershed, or even a micro watershed that isn’t named. You’re going to have a different experience when you’re studying a really big watershed. You’ll be really just doing information and data aggregation, but I promise with the Chesapeake Bay, many have already done that. 

But I could still steer them to studying the watersheds in the way that I originally intended, which is a more intimate exploratory experience where they might re measure water quality and they might measure benthic macro invertebrates, and they might walk the watershed, even if there’s not a real trail there where they just get up and see what’s going on and, and sometimes find mysterious pipes emptying out into the watershed. And, uh, so I got to mimic much of what I did in those early days. And that was part of the interdisciplinary nature of the course to begin with. 

DAN: So then you found yourself in a position where you’re going to take this into a distributed format with your students all over the country and the globe. What I’m hearing is that it puts the learner at the center of the field trip. They’ve got to be the director of the field trip, whereas you’re providing guidance from the wings as it were, as opposed to you being the one that everyone’s looking at it. And I could see how that really increases the demand on them to be active in the process itself. Is that an accurate description?

JIM: Yes. And first I’m explicit about saying that field trips are optional. Even though I spent a lot of time talking about the value of them and, right on my course outline and syllabus, I show them how to identify very helpful resources:  water level gauges, stream gauges, instantaneous weather, including radar so you can see what’s happening and what will happen within the next hour. Also signing them up for not only flood alerts, but weather alerts and things like that, so that they learn the tools of being a leader in that kind of field exploration. 

But I even go so far as to recommend shoe choices, make sure everybody has closed toed shoes, that kind of thing.

DAN: In your courses now, the students don’t actually have to do a watershed that they have access to. They could actually pick a watershed in Peru or something, if there are data that they’re going to be able to virtually, um, assess that watershed.

JIM: Yes, that’s true. Most do, however, pick something proximal to them. However, I mentioned personal professional and academic goals earlier. We’ve had some really wonderful outcomes by giving that much flexibility. 

So one thing I might say professionally is if you’re trying to elevate yourself within your organization or government agency, or prepare for a new career that might influence the type of watershed or biodiverse biodiversity area of study, you might explore. But I encourage people to consider other things too. Where might you like to work someday? 

DAN: Right.

JIM: That didn’t come to me intuitively. Initially I had a student who said, “My significant other has a job in another state, and I know that I want to move up there soon. What could I pick that maybe helped me get a job there.” And I said, “Hey, when you’re going up there next, make that part of your weekend with your SO and go explore… 

DAN: Mmmhmm.

JIM: … and see if there’s something you’d like to explore in more detail and do that data aggregation and figure out an advocacy or stewardship plan for that particular watershed. Maybe the nature center will be open and you can pop in and talk to somebody about it. And it worked. It didn’t work during the duration of the course, but 10 or 11 months later, they got a job because when they went into that job interview, they said, “Before I moved here, I took a graduate course at Virginia tech and the professor gave me the flexibility to study whatever I did, and I chose this particular stream.” And it made a big difference.

DAN: That’s excellent. Yeah.

JIM: They weren’t talking just about the coursework. They were talking about 12, 14, 15 different artifacts from their work that were relevant to the person on the other side of the table.

DAN: Sure. It was built into their portfolio at that point. Yeah. That’s great. 

As a fellow colleague who is putting these courses together, you know, what does the course look like? We’re talking about a method, getting some type of field experience into your course, but you know, what’s the, I guess from the start, what’s the learning objective that we’re trying to satisfy with that method. And is the course structured entirely around that? Or is that a component of a larger project? How does that all come together?

JIM: Well, that is a terrific question. And I think that’s the kind of question that we want all educators to think of whether you’re teaching kindergarten or a doctoral course. I want every instructor to think about your desired outcomes. What are the course goals? Start there. 

And for me, it was to explore, you know, a special area and its resources, and it was to demonstrate and document your understandings as, as you develop them and then find a medium to share them with others. Then identify and engage potential partners and collaborators, those who might be your advocates, and then learn from other students in how they’re pursuing their projects and adopt things that you think seem to be best practices. That’s sort of the goals I have for the students.

My goal in teaching the course is that when these young and not so young folks are out there in the real world, maybe they’re at a meeting table somewhere, or maybe they’re walking a stream bed and they see a problem that they intuitively know where to begin in fixing or solving that. 

So one of the assignments I have in the biodiversity course is to actually outline the process, your state, county, township, whatever for creating a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. So that someday they might be sitting at a table like that and said, you know what, in order to get funding, and in order to solicit donations, we should be a 501(c)(3), and one of our students can raise their hand, say, I know how to do that. And then, and then, you know, things just happen. 

But I imagine them raising their hand and say, I know how to do that with every likely thing that would pop up in, in creating an organization that would be Friends of such-and-such watershed group, whether it’s engaging volunteers or, or whether it’s documenting things for building a great website, too, for other people to find and just spread your messages. I want them to be able to do all of that.  And then right down to technical mapping software and other things too.

DAN: So what I’m sensing is that you’re really designing the course as a complete package where there’s an important descriptive element, which the fieldwork informs, but you’re connecting it really to other predictive and prescriptive elements as well. So they’re really tying the field work in with a policy context and, I imagine, a social context that are occurring in the landscape that they’re studying.

That sounds great. I mean, you’re really putting, I guess we could call a holistic set of outcomes, you know, in front of them to be working on.

JIM: That’s true. One of the, my favorite assignments that may have been one of your favorite assignments in undergraduate or graduate school are dendrology types of requirements. Just getting to know the trees and woody plants wherever you are. It may be a tiny bit manipulative, but by getting them out there, identifying trees, and then the realization that if you know 20 trees you might be able to identify 80% of the trees you see on any given walk.

DAN: Right.

JIM: That, in itself, becomes an addictive component of field work when you are a leader, when you’re just walking down the trail, rather than everybody just walking along, being able to pause and stop and, and out a tree and say, this is common, or maybe uncommon in this area and look at its growth features. It’s not very useful as a forest product, or maybe it’s very useful as a forest product. It’s remarkable that it’s this big, something must’ve happened that led to the protection of this area. You can weave it into so much great context.

But what the students discover is that when they lead a group and their kids are following along, or their friends are following along, Wow! He, she knows a lot about nature. What that does is facilitate that person leading more groups.

DAN: Yeah.

KIERAN: You know, Jim, in the context of online instruction I have a pretty expansive definition of field work… basically, anything you do for a class that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a screen or reading. I think you are aligned with Dan and I on that score.

JIM: You bet.

KIERAN: Ok, so an example of that, which I’ve heard from quite a few students who have taken your watershed course is that you’ll often suggest that they sit in on a couple of their local watershed board meetings. These same students have told me, after they showed up a few times, that someone from the board has approached them, explained that they have a hard time getting people to serve, and then asked if the student would be willing to join the board. They also mention that this experience has opened up a number of opportunities for them. 

I don’t know your intention for sending them, because we’ve never discussed this, but to a person the students are so thrilled … “I got asked to serve on the watershed board!”

JIM: That is a life lesson in leadership that almost has to be experienced. When you realize that 80% of, of leadership lowercase L leadership is just showing up and meeting people, expressing your voice and, and offering to do your part, you have doors, just uh opening in front of you forever on after.

I think that when a person realizes their own capacity, and in the graduate program discovers their own voice, they become unstoppable, you know, in our undergraduate programs, especially our technical programs, we have to memorize a lot of stuff to build the foundation for the understandings necessary to do technical work.

But a big goal for me in graduate education is for these individuals to develop their voice. Make assertions and know they can back them up with data. Post things online and know that, that their field work validated the map they just drew. And that is just a really wonderful thing that encourages people to take on all sorts of new problems that they might not have taken on otherwise.

KIERAN: It just completely evaporates imposter syndrome, doesn’t it?

DAN: It does. 

JIM: Great word. Yes.

DAN: And it’s empowering and it creates agency.

I’m curious about how the field work works in the course now. So your courses are either over 12 or 15 weeks — we know that because they’re summer or spring fall courses. Is it a cumulative process, where they might go into the field repeatedly over a period of weeks, and each week they’re doing a different activity and then it builds into a bigger picture. Or how is that structured? Just as far as the specific guidance you give them for what they’re doing.

JIM: That, I think, is my favorite part of this course. So I usually have between 14 and 16 assignments that result in a real tangible artifact. Something that becomes part of a portfolio. And then in these particular courses where, let’s say that they have 15 artifacts that they’re developing by going out in the field and studying things or, or validating things they’ve done online or found online, or, or simply just exploring and taking photos… rather than just turn something into me, I get them to publish it. Not only for their fellow students to see, but for the whole world to discover. 

I don’t require them to use their full name or even their real name. I don’t care about that. I encourage it if they’re willing, but almost everybody does, by the way. 

I don’t know how often you use Google docs, but they, of course, share their Google docs with me and every now and then I open my Google drive folder and I see that there’s something that’s right at the top of my list, that’s not owned by me… it shows that a student open that document that was made, I don’t know, six years ago. So that tells me they’re also using it in other ways. 

And I make a point — cite everything you re-post but don’t forget to cite your own work. That’s something that is hard for them to comprehend until they start doing it. That, of course, elevates their pride and confidence in their work. And those blogs take on a new life. I see them sometimes rename their blog to build it to the broader context of their graduate degree. 

And, and I tell them, I will never be disappointed to discover that you use something in my course and retrofitted it, redid it, repurposed it, rewrote it for some other course. It makes me confident that the kinds of assignments I’m giving are the kinds of things that you’ll always feel you’re benefiting from.

DAN: So you just give them blanket permission and encouragement to keep going after the semester ends. Okay.

JIM: Oh, yeah. And, and I’m real explicit about thinking of me as a colleague as well. I think that’s resulted in some really wonderful things for me. We don’t get any kind of reimbursement or monetary reward for being on a doctoral committee or a master’s committee, but it is my favorite part. 

When you get this sort of, like, intellectual connection with our students and you see the way they think and you see what motivates them, and then you can add to that motivation? It is one of the best feelings as an educator, seeing these people take off and, and I’m so charmed when they come back to me and ask me to be on a committee, or shepherd an independent study, or just help them figure out a problem in their work. It tells me I’ve made a connection.

DAN: I also am very much interested in emphasizing myself as a colleague. I say, we’re all colleagues in this enterprise. We have different roles, team members often have different roles, but I always address them as colleagues and encourage them to consider each other as colleagues as well. 

And, you know, in that respect, I’m providing guidance. Obviously I’ve designed the courses and I’m in charge with a lot of the delivery of the course, but I really want the ownership of the material to be theirs. You know, if they don’t take ownership of it, then it’s a big missed opportunity, both as far as their active learning goes and really, as far as they’re identifying with why they’re in it in the first place. 

Just on, on an aside, I also happen to love field trips, personally, pedagogically and androgogically. Anytime I can get outside, I’m happier, period. So the idea of either getting students out or getting out myself to be able to do analysis, do study, learn about a landscape is always encouraging. 

KIERAN: That raises another question that I wanted to ask. You know it’s one thing to have students meet at a field site where you are there and you are providing everything that’s needed for the planned activity. But when you have each student on their own, choosing different activities that you have suggested, how do you handle the issues related to equipment needs… or is that part of the reason that they choose one activity over another? How did you get over that as you were trying to make that switch from a more top down approach to a more autonomous field experience?

JIM: In my course, outline and syllabus I’m real explicit about saying don’t buy anything that you don’t imagine keeping on your bookshelf for the rest of your career, and the same thing goes with equipment. Now, if you’ve been waiting for a long time to buy a particular tool, and this course provides the rationale for doing it. I am not going to rat you out to your other family members. I totally understand that. And by the way, I have my own excavator and my own track loader and tractors, etc. So I totally get the heavy equipment side of things.

But here’s a big thing, and, and this goes back to what things that you both just said in the last few minutes that I I’m very quick to tell them, “Hey, after the first two weeks of you out there exploring, I promise, you know, more about your watershed than I do or your area, than I do … unless you pick the Potomac, and in which case, sorry, I’m going to probably always be giving advice unsolicited or otherwise.” 

But I’ll make it clear that they own this now. They’re the storyteller and the best part of that is, I host these optional online meetups, always optional I’ll say, so that no one gets anxious about not being there. And, and by the way, if someone’s in, in China or elsewhere in the world, Australia, uh, they might not be able to comfortably participate on my schedule anyway. 

They’re eager to get on those calls and tell everybody, especially me, what it is they discovered, what they’re doing, what tool they have. We’ve also had students who actually wrote to companies and they asked if they could field test this for a course, and they promised to write it up on their blog when they did it. And the company said, yes. They sent them a thousand dollar instrument with a return shipping label. 

KIERAN: Oh my gosh!

DAN: That’s great.

JIM: And then they used their testimonial on their website.  It’s stuff I probably wouldn’t have even known to purchase sometimes.

DAN: Well, that’s very entrepreneurial.

KIERAN: Definitely. 

What other types of issues come up? You’ve mentioned a couple,  students who have some logistical issues, they have jobs, they might have accessibility issues. But there might be some other issues that come up when you’re assigning or suggesting field work to be done individually rather than a group experience. 

Are there things that you have to warn them about other than wearing the right shoes, from the educational side of things. What comes up in those situations that you never really had to think about too much when you were doing this as a group assignment, because you were there?

JIM: In the summer, a lot of our graduate students are firefighters. They work for a federal agency, state agency, in the Western States. I make it clear that I anticipate they will do whatever they can to explore these areas they chose to explore and what they can’t do, I’ll help them find alternatives. I’ll help them find solutions. 

For those who might have any particular disadvantage or restricted opportunity, whether it’s because of a physical disability or, or the care of somebody else in their family, I want them to know that I will help them find alternatives to do it.  I learned a lot about those possible things that get in the way, including most of those I just mentioned from my students. I did not have the wisdom to anticipate them on my own.

KIERAN: Moving away from issues that are specific to field work for natural resources topics and into more general considerations… I know I’ve had conversations with colleagues who, when asked if they include some kind of field component in their online class, will raise safety concerns as a limiting factor. 

In my discipline, in both of yours, that might involve a student heading out to a remote location to do a population survey, take a water sample, or do a landscape assessment. In other disciplines that might mean asking a student to attend a public hearing, or talk to business owners. And I think it’s important to recognize that not all students will have the same experience. There are female students, or trans students, or students of color who are going to face some inherent challenges, a less welcoming environment, than the instructor does.

Have issues like that ever come up when you’re discussing field activity choices with students? 

JIM: You’ve, you’ve made me realize that I’ve never been explicit about consideration of things that didn’t occur to me naturally in terms of safety. I think I’ve probably covered it, but not been explicit about it. I’ve been implicit about it, but not explicit.

KIERAN: Also, as we’re seeing larger numbers of students come into our program who live in other countries–either expat Americans living abroad temporarily or citizens of other countries who find our degree to not only be valuable to them but also feasible to access. They’re going to be dealing with different cultural norms, different legal protocols. 

JIM: Yeah.

DAN: Sure.

KIERAN: Has that come up for you in discussions about field work options?

JIM: Well, I, I do a lot of work in Middle East, North Africa, and Asia, and I won’t hesitate to offer to a student an introductory email, even if I don’t know the person, just because it may pave a pathway for them to having a, an unobstructed opportunity. 

That often works. That’s something I can do as a professor on behalf of a student, make a connection for somebody. And I encourage my students to connect to me on LinkedIn early on in the course so that if they are ever are looking for a job or a connection or learning about a company, and they use that little tool on LinkedIn — Jim knows three people in this organization — I’ll happily make that introduction and maybe unlock a door. 

KIERAN: Mmmhmm. 

JIM: But that’s about the closest I get to what you’re describing with, with some of these cross cultural barriers that may hamper some of our students from success.

KIERAN: It may not be as relevant to some of our listeners as to others, especially if their online program doesn’t offer the kind of residency-neutral tuition model that makes US-based online programs more accessible to international students or Americans living abroad, but I know I find it helpful to challenge myself to switch from a personal macro lens to a more panoramic view, when possible.

DAN:  Yeah.

I’m curious a little bit about outcomes here. One of the things I want to know is, in either the watershed class or the biodiversity class, what’s the geography of projects that you’re getting.  I mean, literally geography around the world.

JIM: The projects from our course certainly represent many of the areas our students travel as part of their graduate programs throughout the world. Understandably here in the United States our students’ projects often reflect where they live. 

I’ve never done an assessment of all the states that we’ve represented or all the countries that we’ve represented, but that would be a fun thing to undertake now that the watershed course has been underway now, in this online concept for nine years, I think. So that means we’ve probably studied 200 plus watersheds. I need to do that. Thank you, Dan.

DAN:  My pleasure. 

KIERAN: In your spare time.

DAN: Well I know you had said that it’s very enriching for you as the course leader, but also for the other students that they’re now getting exposed to landscapes. You know, all over the world. So they’re learning about places they didn’t even know existed possibly. And there’s power in the diversity of knowledge there, I would think. 

I’m curious as a fellow instructor, what sorts of comments you get from the students at the end of the course? My expectation is this isn’t necessarily a course that they had anticipated fully. So what sorts of things do they say to you?

JIM: You’re right about that anticipation. I do know that those who almost feel like it is a bit of a capstone kind of process, where they, they get to really explore something deeply driven by their own sense of inquiry. 

And I am even reluctant to give them templates for any of the products until they ask for them. And even then I tell them why I’m reluctant to do it. Because I, I know that by giving out templates, everything starts to look the same. 

I don’t even share their websites with each other until week four or five, so that they sort of, they almost get stuck in their strategy and they’re reluctant to change when they see something that’s cool on somebody else’s, they’re like, “no, I’m just going to tweak mine now. And I’m not redoing this. I love my approach.” 

I have not talked with my fellow instructors, however, To see whether they’ve seen anything from people who took my courses and then took their courses if they were a little more stubborn or whatever, I’m not sure.

KIERAN: What kind of advice would you give to somebody, generally, who is thinking about how to move away from screen time in their classes?

JIM: I always advise educators to start with the course goals, then figure out the course objectives, then figure out what kind of tools you would use to assess whether you are successful. For me, that is genuine artifacts. A multiple choice test wouldn’t do it for me. I want them to be able to demonstrate they can do something. Competency-based or skills-based education and assessment is something that’s always been important to me so I look for ways to create assignments that generate those kinds of artifacts. 

DAN: So I have a final question, which is really just an exploration of the innovation theme we’ve been talking about. We like to think that good design and delivery could enable you to teach just about anything online with the assistance of modern technology that we have now, and the outcomes would be as good or possibly even better. So my question to you is could you teach scuba online? Is that the exception that we would find or could you imagine ways, since you’ve taught scuba extensively?

JIM: It’s actually a very relevant question because my specialization is in technical education and workforce development. And we’re really struggling right now with what to do with our career and technical education courses in high schools and community colleges. All those courses where we aren’t satisfied knowing that you have memorized how to replace the brakes on a car, we need to see you do it. Or in the case of scuba, I need to know that you’re going to be safe. 

One of the strategies that is increasingly effective with the technologies we’re adopting is for the participant or student to take videos of themselves or have somebody record them doing something. 

Now an extension of that is something that my colleague Denis Gracanin at Virginia Tech and I had been working on, which is the use of augmented reality, virtual reality, and extended reality. He has developed the technology and I provide the environments. We can wear headsets and it looks like we are in the same room as you are putting your regulator on your scuba tank and as you’re adjusting your weight belt. So it’s not just video, it’s as though I can reach out and point to this and you see me pointing at it while you’re doing it and it really feels like we’re in the same room.

So I do believe that as technology expands and evolves, we will have greater and greater capacity to teach more difficult things. There will always be some exceptions but those kinds of exceptions motivate people like the three of us and a whole bunch of other people.

DAN: Yeah.

KIERAN: That’s a positive note to end on! I’ve wanted to get your thoughts on using field work in online classes for a long time now so thanks for joining us.

DAN: We should talk more often. Well more than every eight years or something.

JIM: Nice spending this time with you.

KIERAN: Take care.


KIERAN: Now we want to hear what you have to say!  Send us your questions, comments, and suggestions.  You can record a voice message, send an email, or leave a comment on our website, wiredivy.org.  And help Wired Ivy grow by sharing, subscribing, rating, and reviewing us on your favorite podcast app.

DAN: Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Dan Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.

KIERAN: Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

DAN: Until next time, this is Dan Marcucci,

KIERAN: And I’m Kieran Lindsey. 

KIERAN and DAN: Let’s stay connected!



Jim Egenrieder has a background in biological field research and applied technology, with more than a decade of agricultural and environmental policy experience on Capitol Hill and with federal and state agencies. Currently, he serves as a National Capital Region leader for Virginia Tech’s Center for Enhancement of Engineering Diversity, Director of the Qualcomm® Thinkabit Lab™, as a member of the VT Online Master of Natural Resources program faculty, and that barely scratches the surface so you’ll definitely want to click on his name above to read the full bio.

Examples of of Jim’s course blogs from previous semesters:

Examples of work being done by Jim’s and his colleague, Denis Gracanin of Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science, in virtual, augmented, and extended reality: 

We welcome your questions, feedback, and suggestions for future episodes. Join our Wired Ivy LinkedIn Group, tweet us @wiredivyor look for the bright blue Talk to Wired Ivy tab on the right side of this screen to leave us a voice message!

Independent project-based learning encourages students to take on new challenges, make assertions, and back them up. When a person realizes their own capacity and discovers their own voice, they become unstoppable. #highered #onlineteaching

Adding field experiences to online classes gave students the chance to explore, driven by their own sense of inquiry as well as professional goals. That was actually the best discovery of all. #highered #onlineteaching

Wired Ivy is wholly owned by Kieran Lindsey and Daniel Marcucci, and we are solely responsible for its content.   Views expressed in this podcast and affiliated media are those of Kieran, Dan, and our guests, and do not represent Virginia Tech or any other institution.  Our audio engineer is Star Path Images, and a license for our theme music, Breakfast with You, was purchased from SmartSound.

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