How Those “Award-Winning” Lab Videos Came into Being

Last Thursday evening the College of Engineering of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga presented me with a couple of awards.

I find myself disparaging some of my activities as “award-losing,” and they certainly are, but this time is different, and some explanation is in order.

In presenting this award, my department head, Dr. James C. Newman III, specifically noted that it was given because of the series of Fluid Mechanics Laboratory videos which I produced in response to the COVID crisis. He commented that the quality of these were “professional” (not quite) and perhaps I paid to have them produced (which I certainly did not.)

Coming to produce videos of any kind (along with other media projects, such as books and websites) was a long process which involves many experiences outside of the engineering and technical career. The primary “school” for learning this kind of thing was my years working in the Church of God Lay Ministries department. In that capacity I first was introduced to web design. This site’s “ancestor” was started on Geocities; the suggestion for same came from a local church men’s leader in Wisconsin.

I did that for many of my activities: the church, myself and Pile Buck, for whom I was now a consultant and a writer. The problem with video, however, was that to produce it took a great deal of both hardware and software that was scarce and expensive in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. A substitute for that were the musically synchronised PowerPoint presentations I did for the Church of God Chaplains Commission. The first (and IMHO the best) of these was the one I did in the wake of 9/11; you can see that below:

From there my work for the church and for Pile Buck took on a symbiotic nature, especially with the next stage: print layout and production. That was the genesis for my print and (then) CD projects, which underwrite the basic expenses of these sites.

In 2008 I started my YouTube channel. I would be the first to admit that the effort has been an off again, on again business. I dabbled in video production and using video software for a long time. In 2018, however, I began posting albums from my Music Pages effort on YouTube. Since these people had cleverly discontinued the ability to post audio files, that meant that I had to wrap them in a video file for upload. To make this happen I turned to the kdenlive software on Linux. Getting these albums ready for YouTube wasn’t very challenging but it got me used to using the timeline and organising the content.

When COVID hit in 2020 we had to go online over Spring Break. The way Fluid Mechanics Laboratory is done, it’s more than just watching the computer taking data; it requires the student to actually look at something and write (or type) something down. This makes it easier to run the experiment in front of a camera and put it together.

Things got more complicated when it became obvious that in Summer 2020 the lab would have to be completely virtual. So in May and early June 2020 I went into the lab and made my videos. It’s hard to explain how I organised my videos, put together a timeline (usually in my head) recorded and then assembled them. It’s one of those things where God had been preparing me for this and, when it happened, it clicked. The virtual lab worked.

The utility of the videos has continued because I still make them watch the initial lecture on video (the lab is an acoustical disaster, something one of my students pointed out a long time ago and which became evident recording the earliest videos.) After that they can watch the video of the experiment to get an idea of what to do, one which is better than just reading the verbiage of a lab procedure. The videos can still be used to “conduct” the experiment virtually. This remains important because COVID has turned academic life into a revolving door, with faculty, staff and students going in and out of quarantine and requiring a virtual environment.

I went on to make videos for my lecture classes in Soil Mechanics and Foundations, but talking head videos are much easier to make than the lab ones. I think we rely too much on talking heads to fill air time (and I mean that in every sense.)

I am grateful to Dr. Newman, Dean Daniel Pack and the College of Engineering and Computer Science for giving me the opportunity to teach in this way and for having recognised its benefits. As I say at the end of all of my videos, “Thanks for watching, and God bless.”

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