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UAS Sitka remodel aims to aid online learning

UAS Sitka campus director Jeff Johnston shows a new touchscreen monitor that instructors will use in a new exhibit hall at the campus. It’s part of a nearly $4 million renovation. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

By this time next month, officials at the University of Alaska Southeast in Sitka hope to be showing off a remodeled campus.

A nearly $4 million renovation is underway at the building, which was once a World War Two airplane hangar. KCAW News took a tour of the work-in-progress with campus director Jeff Johnston.

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It’s difficult to give a tour in a construction zone. But Jeff Johnston is trying his hardest to show off the new career and technical education space at the University of Alaska Southeast. It’s been a busy few months.

“The sheet rockers were here. The painters were here,” Johnston said. “Now the electrician’s finishing up and then the high-tech people will be here to put in cameras and all of that.”

Johnston holds mercury vapor bulbs the campus used as emergency lighting. Four 400 watt bulbs have been replaced with a single 52-watt fluorescent bulb. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

A dimly lit hangar where woodworking and welding classes are held is now bright. The campus replaced its old mercury vapor emergency lights with new fluorescent lighting. A single 52-watt bulb now does the work of three 400-watt mercury lamps that once burned 24 hours a day.

There are better systems for keeping the air clean in areas where sawdust and soot might be flying around. Extension cords are gone, replaced by spools dangling from the ceiling.

And there’s a new renewable energy lab.

“If we wanted to do a low-head hydro project, if we wanted to look at wood pellets, if we wanted to look at cold-climate construction, we could reconfigure this,” he said.

The new workspace should make for a cleaner, brighter and, Johnston says, safer environment. But the centerpiece of this renovation, and one of the biggest reasons the space here is changing, has to do with the Internet.

“We’re up to about 70 or 80 percent of our students are not in Sitka,” Johnston said.

Online learning has become a huge part of what UAS does. And it’s reflected in the new designs. At the center of the building, on the second level, is a 200-person exhibition hall with video conferencing capabilities.

Renovations at UAS are underway. The campus is hoping to have work done in time for a Sept. 21 open house. (KCAW photo/Ed Ronco)

At the moment, this room is studs, i-beams and sheetrock.

“What are they, 12-foot screens, side by side? One for a presentation, one for a video conference,” Johnston said. “Then there’ll be one big, 16-foot screen in the middle that will come down if you’re just going to have a presentation or a show.”

Right now, the room UAS uses for video conferencing starts to feel cramped around 80 people. Johnston says the move toward online learning is more than just gee-whiz technology. It allows this campus to reach more students in isolated places.

It could also mean more in-person opportunities in Sitka. For example, there might not be enough people in Sitka to put 25 people in a class.

“But if we can put four or five in a local class, and at the same time via video conferencing, bring three from Petersburg and two from Wrangell and whatever, we can have that local opportunity for the students plus serve students in some of the outlying communities. So that’s our latest venture,” he said.

The changes to the building will make all of those things easier, Johnston says. He also acknowledges that for faculty, handling the local-online blend of students will be kind of an adjustment.

“It’s more than kind of an adjustment,” he said. “When I was at the Air Force Academy, we prided ourselves on having no more than 18 students in a class. Once in a while we’d jump all the way up to 24. Then when I was down at St. George’s University, I had 320 students in a calss. And then I get up here, and when I do teach a class, they’re not even with me.”

About $3 million of the campus renovation is from the federal Department of Education. The rest, about $800,000, comes from the state to handle safety and code issues. This is probably the largest project the campus has done in the last seven years.

The campus is hoping to have its remodel ready to show off at a Sept. 21 open house. That will include a brief ceremony and the unveiling of some student artwork, including six totems for the outside of the building.

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