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Virtual Project Lab Brings Back Thayer's Buzz

Sep 29, 2020   |   by Julie Bonette

Update: On October 14, this project was announced as the winner of the Exemplary Educators category of the 2020 Zoomtopia Innovation Awards. As a result, Thayer won two tickets for Zoomtopia 2021, received a gift box of Zoom swag, and will be featured on Zoom’s blog and social channels.

Originally published on September 29:

“Before the pandemic, Thayer [School of Engineering at Dartmouth] was very much a hands-on place. It was buzzing, and anytime you walk down the hall, you’re going to see some cool project going on. When we moved to remote learning, [we] had this challenge of, how do you make virtual spaces that are as dynamic as the physical spaces that we have?”

This was the question posed by Jane Reynolds, User Support Analyst on Thayer School’s computing services (CS) team, as well as more generally at educational institutions across the country when the pandemic forced closures. As Thayer implemented rigorous health and safety protocols in response to COVID-19, staff wondered if and how it would be possible to translate all that “buzz” to the digital sphere.

As has often been the case in this new era, Zoom was the answer. Using Zoom’s back-end software and the talents of Thayer’s graphic designer, Patricio Sarzosa, the CS team was able to digitally recreate one of Thayer’s most iconic spaces: the Couch Project Lab.

Upon first entering the Virtual Couch Lab, a user sees an aerial, illustrated layout that represents the actual physical space, including tables, couches, and even the break room. Each area represents a separate Zoom meeting room, and users are able to float between Zoom meetings using the room illustration. Users can also see thumbnail images and names of others currently using the space, including where each person is “sitting.”

The Virtual Couch Lab was designed to enable informal meetings such as when co-workers want to catch up over a quick break or students want to meet in study groups.

“We’re getting a little bit of that sense of fun, buzz, creativity, and playfulness that everyone was really missing, and it’s all built on Zoom,” said Reynolds.

The Virtual Couch Lab has even provided a space for campus groups outside of Thayer looking to create community online.

“The Virtual Couch Lab has been great for some of the groups I lead on campus,” said Ryan Hickox, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, and the house professor for West House. “The West House community held a virtual dinner with first-year students, and we're hoping to be able to organize some events to bring first-year and upperclass Westians together in the coming weeks, with tables organized by interest or Big/Little student groups. I've also used the Virtual Couch Lab for meetings of my astronomy research group, and it's been refreshing to be able to gather on the ‘couches’ just as we would in my office in Wilder Hall!”

Visit the Virtual Couch Lab — For the best experience, CS recommends first logging in to Zoom.

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