By Andrew G. Baruth, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physics, Creighton University
Physics departments from across the AJCU network have found a welcoming home in the new AJCU Faculty Teaching Commons, but virtual connection is nothing new for this ever-expanding group of collaborators. For seventeen years, physics faculty have gathered both in-person and online as part of the Heartland Jesuit Physics Retreat. In the spirit of collaboration at a time when digital connection and remote teaching have proven essential due to the pandemic, we reflect on our history and encourage AJCU faculty to start similar faculty retreat programs or to participate in ours.
In Spring 2003, Dr. Ruth Howes, former chair of Marquette University’s physics department, visited Creighton University to sit in on their annual physics department retreat. Dr. Michael Cherney, professor emeritus of physics at Creighton (and longtime retreat organizer), recalls that Dr. Howes was impressed by the close connection forged between the students, faculty and staff. She believed an analogous retreat for physics faculty from Jesuit colleges and universities across the Midwest could be similarly beneficial.
That first retreat took place in November of the same year at Camp Wyoming in a very primitive (and cheap) cabin in eastern Iowa: a nice midway point for all participants, especially when funding was limited. In light of its proximity, Loyola University Chicago’s physics department also attended the retreat. Rev. Larry Gillick, S.J., Director of the Deglman Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Creighton, served as facilitator.
The retreat weekend consisted of a social gathering on Friday night where everyone chatted around the cabin. It was an opportunity to make connections, socialize and develop empathy for fellow faculty and their unique departments. Mass was offered on Saturday morning and discussions of Jesuit mission, and its application to physics education, were an essential component of the day. The retreat saw synchronization between departments to discover what others were doing in physics education. The first attendants remember an intimate meeting unlike anything they had previously attended in their academic careers. It was a weekend of nurturing, comradery and connection.
After two successful years, the retreat group added faculty from Rockhurst University and Saint Louis University. An invitation was later extended to the remaining Heartland-Delta institutions in 2007. Dr. Nancy Donaldson, longtime chair of physics at Rockhurst, fondly remembers her first retreat in 2005. At the time, she was feeling alone in academia (as a result of her small department) and was excited to join a group of like-minded faculty with whom to share ideas and struggles. She immediately became “part of the family,” and the retreat gave her a sense of confidence that encouraged her to introduce innovative ideas at her own university. She specifically recalled the intimacy of the retreat, including the Friday night socializing and walks around the cabin. There existed a pervasive feeling of “How can we help each other?”
The retreat continued and grew with a typical annual attendance of twenty-five faculty. The first big idea that coalesced amongst the group was to create a common seminar with guest speakers. Each department realized that it was difficult to get speakers from large universities and industries to come to their small departments to give lectures and colloquia. However, if more institutions got together, and with assistance from technology, they could expand the audience and allow for more speakers. Keep in mind that in the mid-2000s, few departments were doing much with videoconferencing and on-site IT staff were often required to troubleshoot technical issues. The group attempted virtual seminars a few times, with some success. Ahead of its time, the endeavor ultimately faltered, but the seeds of what could be accomplished were planted.
Fast forward a decade later, and the concept of video conferencing and virtual meetings had matured and become a common practice for many departments and students. Starting in 2016, the group turned their attention, once again, to using technology to help facilitate broader opportunities in physics education. Using AJCU’s 2006 Inter-Institutional Memorandum of Agreement for Online Courses, physics departments shared course plans that could assist with graduation requirements for their respective students. For example, it was not uncommon to have one or two students needing an “out-of-sequence” course for graduation, or to have a student missing courses due to studying abroad. Through long-distance sharing of courses, the group assisted these students by adding them to their on-site courses virtually. Each course had a local faculty member to help facilitate and assist with tutoring sessions and proctoring to ensure a comparable experience to the home institution, while providing more flexibility for the department and student.
By the time of our last in-person meeting in late 2019 (the most inclusive, to date), the group had grown to include faculty from sixteen physics departments across the AJCU network. At that meeting, we established a Microsoft Teams group to better communicate virtually and more seamlessly share syllabi, course schedules and physics labs. These virtual conversations, and the associated enthusiasm, grew as the spring 2020 semester loomed. Faculty saw new opportunities for their students that they feared were not possible at their home institutions.
It was only months later that everything came to an abrupt halt and classes were forced into a virtual environment due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Reassuringly, this group had already established a means of communication and had experimented with assisting other departments in their course offerings virtually. While existing collaborations continued that spring, by May 2020, bi-weekly virtual meetings had been established to discuss best practices for online teaching, share ideas for virtual physics labs, and to provide an outlet for venting frustrations and finding comradery in these difficult times. The group has continued these regular virtual meetings, where the sharing of upper-level course listings and best-practices for hybrid teaching are primarily discussed. And now, through the AJCU Faculty Teaching Commons, the group has begun to communicate via Google Docs.
The Heartland Jesuit Physics Retreat members look forward to forging new connections with faculty within the Jesuit higher education network to best prepare for this new paradigm in virtual learning and, hopefully, greet one another in person again soon.