A not (yet) successful experiment in walking office hours.

Faced with the thought of trying to establish interaction with 50 masked students spread to the far-flung corners of an enormous lecture room from behind a perspex screen with my glasses steaming up, I decided from the start of this semester to teach my Solid State Physics and Chemistry of Materials class on zoom.

Not liking, however, the thought of never meeting my students in person, I decided to try outdoor walking office hours, which had tempted me since I first read about them some years ago in the Tomorrow’s Professor newsletter.

Introduced by Fiona Rawle of University of Toronto Mississauga, the concept is that the instructor walks a ~15 minute circular route round campus, and students can join and leave at any time. Rawle started walking office hours to try to be more effective in connecting with her students and found them useful for promoting meaningful discussions about career opportunities, research placements, and subject background. You can read her article about her experiences here.

So on a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon in week one of the semester I left my research team enjoying a socially-distanced-individual-cup-cakes-outdoor-party for departing group members and set out on lap one:

Twenty minutes later, having pounced on two unsuspecting new international students who were loitering by the bus stop with notes and looked like they might have a question (if you’re reading, my apologies for terrifying you) I arrived back at the cup-cakes party empty handed. “Someone came” my group shouted enthusiastically. “We sent him in the opposite direction to intercept you”. So off I set again and 10 minutes later found my class member wandering through the forest staring at the maps app on his phone. (Lesson 1 — a shorter and more straightforward route would have been a better choice). He joined me for the next lap and we talked a bit about the class material, as well as about his undergraduate background and how things such as research internships work at the ETH. One lap later and it was time to declare it the weekend. Not bad for a first outing I thought.

Week 2. Pouring rain. I mean really pouring. I quite like walking in the rain (I grew up in England after all) but couldn’t imagine effectively looking at derivations on my iPad under a dripping tree so I shifted office hours to zoom. Significant increase in attendance.

Week 3. This week I learned an important time-management lesson: Don’t schedule two all-day zoom meetings in the same day even if they are in different time zones so it’s temporally possible. Unable to choose between the Editors’ retreat of the Physical Review Journals (gratuitous advertising for my new fully open access journal Physical Review Research) and the Scientific Advisory Board meeting of the UK Neutron and Muon Source, and since attendance didn’t require me to be simultaneously on Long Island and in Didcot, I decided to do both and schedule a zoom office hour in between. Eighteen hours later and barely able to see straight I crawled into bed and woke up some time around Sunday lunchtime with no recollection of whether anyone came to office hours or not.

Week 4. Following a hint that late Friday afternoons might not be the best time for optimizing attendance, I decided to try Wednesdays straight after the Materials Department colloquium instead. Wednesday afternoon saw pouring rain again, but my MeteoSchweiz app assured me that it would stop at precisely 17:31 so I set off at 17:30 in the dispersing drizzle and enjoyed a lovely sunny evening walk through the forest. Not sharing my confidence that all those weather-forecasting CPUs at the Swiss Supercomputing Centre are put to good use, no-one joined me.

Week 5. COVID-19 case numbers are doubling in less than a week, and one no longer even needs the back of an envelope to see that there will be 10,000 cases per day by the start of November. To discourage anyone from making an extra trip to Campus, walking office hours are abandoned, at least for now, until happier times when we can return to learning in the classroom, and maybe the forest too.

About Nicola Spaldin

Nicola Spaldin is the professor of materials theory at ETH Zürich. She is a passionate science educator, former director of her department’s study program, and holder of the ETH Golden Owl Award for excellence in teaching. She developed the class of materials known as multiferroics, which combine simultaneous ferromagnetism and ferroelectricity, and when not trying to make a room-temperature superconductor, can be found playing her clarinet, or skiing or climbing in the Alps.
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