Baker University creates new learning environments


Maggie Young

Biology Professor Dr. Unger teaches her Scientific Theory Quest course just outside of Mulvane Hall. Students gathered in a socially distanced manner to discuss course material.

While there are several changes instituted on Baker University’s campus this semester, none are quite as visible as the six outdoor classrooms scattered across campus. Covid-19 has created the need for alternative learning environments.

The idea was considered to offer more opportunities for in-person learning on campus.

Darcy Russell, dean of the college of arts and sciences, researched the effectiveness of this new learning environment.

“I did quite a bit of reading this summer and consulted with other deans and this was a solution that many campuses, including the University of Kansas, opted to try.  We know that it is safer to be outside – spread apart if possible – than it is to be inside if we cannot get six feet of space,” Russell said.

The use of outdoor classrooms is not required, and faculty can reserve the space at any time. Each faculty member is assigned an indoor classroom space but can choose to hold class outside.

For students, the use of outdoor classrooms is a welcomed addition to campus. Peyton Augustine, senior, prefers the outdoor classrooms to the use of Zoom as they provide a sense of normalcy. However, there are still drawbacks to being outdoors.

“My classes that are in normal classrooms are still my preference because I find myself getting distracted outside easily. There is just so much to look around at outdoors and it makes it harder to focus for me personally,” Augustine said.

The implementation of the outdoor classroom spaces was not something undertaken lightly.

Associate Vice President of Capital Planning, Facilities and Emergency Management, Scott George described the difficulties in setting up the outdoor classrooms.

“One issue we had to work through was what was the best way to get things set out each morning and picked up in the afternoon,” George said.  “Our grounds crew were quick to create chair racks that were easily transported but durable to handle being moved daily.   We also had to adjust our mowing schedule so we would not interfere with classes.”

In addition to creating the chair racks, the university had to purchase six whiteboards for each of the six classrooms.

Another challenge to outdoor classrooms is the uncertain weather for fall.

For Augustine, the heat has been a struggle to deal with during class time but is thankful that most of the classrooms were placed in shadier areas of the campus.

George knew that heat would be an issue for the months of August and September and planned accordingly.

“We are blessed with beautiful shade trees throughout campus,” George said.

But heat is not the only weather issue the outdoor classrooms will face this semester.

“As we move into fall, rain could be an additional challenge and of course cold and snow as we settle into the winter months.  Traditional classrooms remain available for days where inclement weather prevents outdoor classes from happening,” George said.

Despite these challenges, both students and administration believe the outdoor classrooms have been a beneficial addition to campus this semester.

“Right now, as a virologist, I am grateful to have these outdoor options for faculty and students.  It is another safety measure that I am happy we took.  We had to buy the whiteboards and our facilities staff are doing extra work each day to distribute the equipment. But, if it helps us stay safer, it is a win,” Russell said.

Moreover, Russell thinks that the outdoor classrooms can continue to serve Baker long after the pandemic is over if students and faculty want to continue using them.