Teaching Remotely: Fabrication courses faced unique challenges in adapting to remote format

Monday, June 22, 2020
A digital rendering of a student design for a marble run.

A digital rendering of a student design for a marble run.

After COVID-19 was detected in Austin in mid-March, the University of Texas moved all of its classes online for the remainder of the semester. In this series, we explore how faculty in the College of Fine Arts are adapting their curriculum to an online format.

J.E. Johnson

Instructor: J E Johnson, Scenic Studio Supervisor at Texas Performing Arts and Lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Dance 

Tell us about a class you taught this spring.

Digital Fabrication (AET and T&D), AET Studio, and Scenic Studio Construction Lab (T&D)

What was a challenge you faced in moving instruction online this spring?

The driving force behind what I teach, the process and content, is all leading up to a physical product–usually something very challenging and extravagant. Most students know this when they enroll in the courses I teach. They are seeking challenging, hands-on experiences. After spring break, the original intent was for the Digital Fabrication students to apply the skills they learned with software, 3D printing and laser cutting by collaborating with Michael Baker and Kyle Evans AET Studio course (which I was also co-teaching). The hope was to facilitate and co-create the construction of AET Studio designs. So when we all suddenly lost access to all the tools and materials housed in the TPA labs, I felt like I was the captain of a tall ship stuck in the middle of the ocean with no wind.

How did you solve it?

In the best-case scenario, collaboration between courses is very challenging. Since we could see no equitable way of adding another collaborative element to both courses during the transition to online learning, each course went its separate way. But I still wanted to find some way for the students to work on a project together. When I found a marble run set while cleaning my kid’s room, I knew I found my answer. I molded a simple template for each student and shared some new modeling techniques in class both synchronously and asynchronously. Then I printed the results in my home studio.

How have your students responded in your class?

Many students got really obsessed with making highly complex shapes!

A digital rendering of a student design for a marble run.

Have there been any innovations or solutions that you plan to carry into in-person instruction in the future?

I was already teaching a “flipped” course. Students were watching instructional videos on their own time so that we could use all of class time to talk about their challenges and successes. This was an easy transition into online only. The most impactful part of this transition, which will definitely help me to be a better instructor, is that I had to 3D print everything! This gave me an opportunity to experience the technology from a student POV. Looking at their files, I could see mistakes, inefficiencies and novel solutions in student digital models that I would have otherwise missed. Because of this experience, I’ll be able to anticipate problems and help students learn software using a much greater diversity of workflows.

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