Photo by Richard H. Miller
PULLMAN – How do you spot a witch? See if she weighs the same as a duck. This is how it works: A witch burns and wood also burns. Wood floats and a duck also floats. Therefore, a witch is made of wood and of equal weight to a duck.
The logic, from a “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” clip, is pure quackery, but that’s the point. The clip teaches the perils of false assumptions, said WSU instructor Allyson Beall, who uses the film in her new online course, ES/RP 101, Environment and Human Life.
Students’ homes are labs
The spring course has about 40 students – cozy compared to the on-campus version, which has 320 students split up into 16 labs. Online students use their homes as labs, auditing their energy use and growing vegetables indoors.
“We send them a full spectrum lamp, pots and seeds,” Beall said, but they are required to supply their own potting soil.
“I also ask them to introduce themselves in the context of their natural environment,” Beall said. “Which direction does your house face? What’s the vegetation like? Where do the prevailing winds come from? How long is your commute?”
Building personal connections
Building those kinds of personal connections is a key principle of online course design, said Susan Fein, a Center for Distance and Professional Education instructional designer who is working with Beall.
“When students are talking about their own heating bills,” Fein said, “that’s going to create a lot of engagement.”
Beall already has had some delightful chat sessions, she said.
Lively online discussions
“It’s pretty cool because you can have more dialogue about things online,” she said. “It’s hard to know what’s going on when you’re looking at a sea of faces in a lecture hall.”
Online discussions tend to be lively because of students’ differing backgrounds. In Beall’s course, geographical diversity also comes into play.
“On-campus students generally live in Pullman and their living situations are pretty much the same,” Fein said. “Online students may live in a rain forest or a desert. They may live in Seattle or Florida. That diversity adds to the richness of the online conversations.”
Changed me forever
According to, Beall is an extraordinary teacher: “She is so laid back and chill,” said one student. “I was upset at first for getting this class cuz it wasn’t of interest to me but it has definitely changed me forever.”
When she’s not being a “chill” teacher, Beall works in the field of “participatory modeling” – which isn’t as racy as it sounds. It actually involves using computer graphics to involve the public in natural resource management.
Who is Beall?
Beall is an expert in water use issues. She is on the International System Dynamics Society Policy Council and the American Society of Civil Engineers Environmental and Water Resources Institute Task Force on Best Practices for Collaborative Modeling. She is also a board member of the Palouse Clearwater Environmental Institute.
Beall earned three degrees from WSU: A 2003 bachelor’s in biology, a 2004 master’s in environmental science and a 2007 doctorate in environmental and natural resource science. From 1981-2002, she owned and operated a show horse business, where she trained horses and coached riders in competitive show jumping.