With days to spare, SNR’s Stiles, Umphlett redesigned in-person workshop for Zoom. Here’s how.

Natalie Umphlett and Crystal Stiles of the High Plains Regional Climate Center.
Natalie Umphlett and Crystal Stiles of the High Plains Regional Climate Center.

On March 17, Crystal Stiles and Natalie Umphlett were supposed to lead a climate resilience workshop in Iowa for representatives from nine area tribes. But a week before that, the University of Nebraska enacted a faculty and staff travel ban in an effort to slow the potential spread of the coronavirus.

Stiles and Umphlett, of the High Plains Regional Climate Center located at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, were disappointed. So were the participants, but all understood why a full in-person gathering would have to wait. And they all agreed that they didn’t want to postpone the workshop.

So, with less than a week to spare, Stiles and Umphlett pivoted, and redesigned the workshop to be held over the course of two eight-hour Zoom sessions -- with breaks, of course.

There have been a wealth of tips and examples about teaching remotely shared recently at the School of Natural Resources, and throughout the University of Nebraska system as a whole. Stiles and Umphlett wanted to share the experience of going remote from a workshop perspective.

The workshop was supposed to take place in a conference room at the WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Sloan, Iowa, where Stiles and Umphlett would join Mark Junker with the Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska to work with EPA Region 7 Tribal Program representatives from the Iowa Tribe of Nebraska, Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, Meskwaki Nation, Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas & Nebraska, Santee Sioux Nation and Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska to learn how to develop detailed climate summaries for their tribes.

Typically, Stiles said, this type of workshop is a hands-on experience, where the instructors walk around the room and check on how participants are experimenting with climate tools and location data to write summaries about conditions in their regions. For many participants, who come from environmental rather than climate science backgrounds, it’s a lot of new information. Presenting it remotely added a new element to mix.

“I think for us, the challenge was we had to make that switch on a dime,” Umphlett said. “We didn't have time to prepare. We just had to do it, and see what happened. I was incredibly stressed. I was really worried about what was going to happen. Is the technology going to work for eight hours straight? Are people actually going to join? Is everyone's internet going to hold up for that length of time? There were all those worries we had because we had never done it before. To see it play out pretty well, looking back is really good.”

Here’s what Stiles and Umphlett said helped the workshop succeed.

Acceptance. Stiles said they recognized that some elements that lead to successful workshops wouldn’t be the same in a remote setup. Normally, when she gives an introduction to climate science at the outset of a workshop, Stiles said she’s scanning the room, gauging faces to see who is understanding and what information is producing deer-in-headlights looks. Then, she can slow down or start over again. She knew that conducting the same session on Zoom, while sharing a screen for participants, wouldn’t allow her to keep virtual eye contact with all of the class, and that was okay.

“This is an unprecedented situation and we all have to give ourselves a little grace that things are not going to work perfectly, that maybe the participants won't be engaged in the same way they would be in person,” Stiles said. “But we have to make the best of the situation and just go with it.”

She said it likely helped that they had worked with this group at previous workshops, and knew each other already. The participants were open to the sudden change, too, and trusted that everyone could make the best of it.

“What really impressed me about the climate summary training was our ability to reach out, engage and change direction at the same time,” Junker said in an email. “We were able to share data that was appropriate and unique to each tribe. We were really put into a bad position and were ourselves #REZILIENT, and that is whole purpose of the project. We don’t get to pick our poison but we demonstrated that if we have the proper tools that we can accomplish our goals.”

Adaptation. “Everybody was a really good sport in switching to the online format,” Umphlett said. “Obviously, everyone wanted to be there in person. Not just us as instructors, but the participants as well, because we've all met in the past. And hands-on workshops are better when they are truly hands-on.”

Instead, the group met over two eight-hour Zoom sessions. (They left it running during breaks.) Umphlett was impressed by how few glitches popped up over such a long span with participants joining in from across a wide region. The setup also allowed for guest appearances from NOAA (Doug Kluck) and UNL SNR (Michael Hayes). And participants were able to share their screens and ask questions that arose during the two-day session.

“We are very fortunate that UNL has this Zoom license,” Stiles said. “It's easy to use, there's not a real steep learning curve with it. I think we felt very fortunate to have the opportunity to use that in a pinch. It worked pretty well.”

Teamwork. Stiles and Umphlett have plenty of experience co-leading workshops together, and tend to serve as each other’s audience engagement coordinators while the other is leading a session. Though the workshop was held on Zoom instead of in a conference room, they were able to keep that strategy in place.

“I think we were able to make the best of the circumstances,” Umphlett said. “For instance, if Crystal was giving her presentation, then I would be the one who was checking on the technology. Asking via chat if anybody had questions. If anybody is having technical problems. And then when I was giving a presentation, Crystal would do the same for me. Luckily we work really close together anyway, so for us it was just natural to step in and do what needed to be done for each other, and that really helped the situation.”

Cory Matteson, SNR Communications