Spring 2021 classes at UNC Asheville are a combination of in-person, online or hybrid, something most students are familiar with from the fall, but this semester ushered in a new aspect with the addition of 25 Student Academic Course Ambassadors. These student positions work directly with faculty to implement instructional technologies, lead in-person assignments with hands-on elements, and ensure that students stay connected with their classes, wherever they are.
The Academic Course Ambassador Program is funded by a Mellon Foundation Presidential grant given to Chancellor Nancy J. Cable, which is the third Mellon Foundation grant to UNC Asheville in five years. Chancellor Cable designated monies from the grant to support faculty, staff and students by offering on-campus employment that benefits faculty, staff and students for the spring semester.
“Designating these Mellon Grant funds meets one of the greatest needs of our faculty, staff, and students in the time of COVID,” said UNC Asheville Chief of Staff Shannon Earle, one of the co-managers of the project. “When we employ a student in an academic role we confirm the quality of academic work of the University and our commitment to UNC Asheville’s student-centered education, as well as Chancellor Cable’s commitment to secure funding for innovative solutions.”
The idea of student academic course ambassadors began when UNC Asheville Interim Dean of Humanities and Professor of History Tracey Rizzo met with a faculty member in the fall who asked for help setting up Zoom links and videos for their classes. These technical aspects distracted from the in-person classes, which already had the challenges of social distancing and teaching behind a mask.
“It’s one of the victory stories when we think about how hard it is a year into the pandemic,” said Rizzo, who co-manages the project. “Sometimes one person asking for help can start a movement.”
Now some of the Student Academic Course Ambassadors are filling that role of tech support, setting up videos and virtual classes or recording notes and monitoring chats, while others are stepping in to manage in-person details, like setting up a painting room and maintaining COVID protocols in computer labs.
Students also work closely with the Center for Teaching and Learning, Instructional Technology Services, and the Office of Accessibility in their work. The opportunity serves as a resume builder and another example of their experience in the classroom, particularly if they are pursuing a teacher licensure.
Madison Carson, a senior majoring in environmental studies and art from Needham, Massachusetts, works as a student academic course ambassador in Professor of Art Megan Wolfe’s Ceramics I class, a course that Carson skipped taking at UNC Asheville as a transfer student. Now she has hands-on experience in course instruction, a valuable skill for this future educator.
“Being in the class where I’m helping Megan gives me a new perspective,” said Carson. “I get to see these projects she’s created and how she’s teaching her students, particularly during this difficult time.”
Carson sets up Zoom and edits the videos and sets up demonstrations for throwing on the wheel and handbuilding. She was recruited for the position after completing a McCullough Fellowship last summer with the N.C. Arboretum, where she also made educational videos.
“We can now create videos that can be uploaded and used in the future by the students. It’s a great resource to have,” said Wolfe.
Cultivating Cultural Connections
Rose Sink, a junior biology major from Mooresville, North Carolina, serves as a student course ambassador for two of Professor of Biology David Clarke’s classes, Humanities 124 and Biology 110. Both classes meet in person every Friday in UNC Asheville’s Roots Garden, weather permitting.
The technique she is using is Terra Preta, which is Portuguese for Black Earth. As she explained, it was used heavily by indigenous Amazonian peoples prior to colonization and the subsequent genocides and pandemics indigenous peoples faced, and the hands-on work is focusing students’ learning while bringing a focus on South America in the Humanities curriculum.
“Engaging in this project brings more attention to Pre-Colombian New World cultures, and also highlights the connection and knowledge indigenous cultures had with the land apart from colonizers’ judgements and interpretations,” said Sink. “Additionally, working outside with peers in a safe environment is something we don’t get to do as often now due to the coronavirus. It’s wonderful to connect with peers and literally see the fruit of our labor.”
On rainy days, Clarke brings the food lessons indoors with cooking videos from his home kitchen shared with the classes.
“Many students, myself included, are also interested in gardening techniques and understanding the process of how we get food on our tables. Many of us want to experience growing our own food and this course gives us the knowledge for how we can do that in the future,” said Sink.
Social Distancing Standards
Delaney Carlton, a sophomore from Atlanta, Georgia, who is majoring in physics with a comprehensive science teacher licensure, is helping with two sections of the Physics 131 Lab. She completes each lab prior to class and then is ready to answer student questions via Zoom, allowing Senior Lecturer in Physics Judy Beck to focus on in-person students. The groups alternate each week or as needed for student requests.
“In order to maintain an adequate level of social distancing this semester, each PHYS 131 lab period actually has two different lab activities occurring simultaneously. Half the students are in the lab room engaged in a traditional hands-on lab, and the other half are on Zoom working in breakout rooms analyzing videos with software that enables tracking and graphing motion of an object. Groups alternate week to week so that every student experiences both the in-person and the remote labs,” said Beck. “Delaney’s main responsibility is managing and facilitating the break out rooms for the remote lab students.”
Setting up the virtual lab means making the breakout rooms and dropping in to them to check on progress. Carlton also answers any questions students have, both about the technology or software and about the content.
“Knowing that she is able to follow their progress and address most issues that arise removes a lot of potential frustration for the students,” said Beck. “Having Delaney discuss the physics concepts and skills with the students in the class is really an added bonus. She is essentially serving as a peer learning assistant as well as a lab facilitator. She does an excellent job engaging the students and posing questions that help guide them through the lab experience in a way that maximizes learning.”
“I think this has helped the students in lab get their questions answered/get the help they need in a more efficient way,” added Carlton.