Reimagining the Classroom

Three professors adapt to the online migration of their classes to deliver the education their students signed up for and more.

For Mohammed Daqaq, the program head of mechanical engineering, thinking outside the box to teach a critical core class to students at NYU Abu Dhabi meant looking inside the box.

In the latter half of Daqaq’s design class, Machines in the Islamic Civilization, the professor had planned to give his students a project that would have them delve into the engineering progress during Islam’s Golden Age by building machines designed by some of the great minds of that time.

But with face-to-face classes suspended due to COVID-19 social distancing measures and limited access to the 3D printers that would bring these millennium-old relics to life, Daqaq had to devise a plan to keep the integral design component of the class alive. The professor of mechanical engineering asked students to send him their designs so that he could 3D print them. Daqaq would then leave the printed, sanitized pieces outside his students’ dorms in boxes for them to assemble, make a video presentation on and then place them in a box in a designated location on campus for the professor to pick up and assess.

“The students got a good feel for the important contributions of Muslim scholars in the field of automation, and they had a good understanding of the level of ingenuity needed to build such complex machines with low-level equipment,” he said. “I think the students got a good feel for the overall objective of this class despite the limitations and restrictions placed by the COVID-19 situation.”

Daqaq’s methods are just one of the many ways faculty have managed to elevate their online teaching experience through adaptation, an aspect that he says is integral to the continuation of a world-class university education.

“We promised these students this kind of experience for this class and I didn’t want to disappoint. So, I had to find a way to incorporate it,” he said. Daqaq advised faculty to be able to “adapt and don’t underestimate the students because they are eager to learn.”

A 3D-printed model of an automated irrigation machine designed by Ismail Al Jazari, a Muslim scholar from Islam's Golden Age.

Across campus, Goffredo Puccetti, an assistant professor of practice of visual arts who also consults for design firms Humus Design in Italy and Graines d’Octets in France, was playing the role of junior graphic designer, satisfying requests for his class of 11.

This was the solution migrating online a class about understanding how people orient themselves in physical spaces through the usage of sensory cues. Many of the students enrolled in Wayfinding were social distancing, and some of the students were not even in the country.

“I guaranteed the students whatever element was still needed or missing in their research they can just rely on me, and we would provide the information,” he said, speaking of himself and assistant instructor Erin Meekhof Collins.

Students who were tasked to make signs to better understand the process of non-verbal communication through inanimate objects needed to visualize the spaces they were designing signs for. But with limited access, and with some outside the country, the students would request Puccetti to provide them with dimensions and photos of the spaces.

He said that the circumstance also gave his students vocational training on how to properly communicate to design colleagues.

“I worked as a junior designer, I enjoyed it. And I think there was an added value, a byproduct of this exercise that they learn how to give specific instructions. They’d say ‘I need a photo of the A4 building’ , but that’s not enough: I would tell them they need to be specific to say ‘I need a photo of the A4 building’ facade as seen from the plaza, possibly at noon so there are no shadows, and so on and so forth. That was a good design exercise,” he said.

Although Puccetti was able to provide the experience students were expecting to the best of his ability, he said translating the in-person experience of education online was difficult and required adaptation on the part of both faculty and students.

For Jill Magi, delivering that shoulder-to-shoulder experience with her students through distance learning required her to utilize all the tools she had on offer, and some leaps of faith

In her class Fiber Studio, Magi, associate arts professor, encouraged students to explore a range of textile practices, including embroidery, sewing and quilting among others. The aim of the class was to use these practices to understand a wide range of art-world terms such as minimalism and abstraction. 

One of the last techniques Magi’s students learned before the social-distancing measures was applique, the process of attaching one piece of fabric to another. The technique is the timeworn process behind the creation of quilts, whereby several people would work together to create a quilt.

The disruption of the historically social experience of creating a quilt did not deter Magi. On the last day of class, she advised students to take pieces of fabric to create four squares of applique inspired by architecture in Abu Dhabi.

The students were then asked to take photos and send them to Judi Olson, Costume Shop Instructor, to compile into one complete photo, creating a quilt made up from the individual student’s contribution.

“That drew on the tradition of quilt-making, which is often a collaborative act. In traditional circles, people would put together a quilt-top but then gather together around a big table and do the quilting together. During that time, they would share stories or political views or are just together. We couldn’t be together but we decided to put them virtually together,” Magi said.

The compiled image of all the appliques inspired by architecture arranged in a quilt pattern.