In a semester like no other at Virginia Tech, students and faculty are finding new ways to appreciate small victories that can make a big difference in the classroom. Sometimes those simple victories emerge as fresh air, warm sunshine, and beautiful fall colors.

Hiromi Okumura, a collegiate assistant professor in the School of Visual Arts, knows these small victories all too well. As an art, design, and drawing instructor, she wanted to provide as many meaningful in-person experiences for her students as possible this semester, especially since she knew many classes had adopted a hybrid or online-only approach due to COVID-19.

And what could be a better venue for in-person art classes than the university’s own Hahn Horticulture Garden?

“On sunny days, we’re definitely going to Hahn,” said Okumura of her Drawing for Non-Majors course, which would be held in the Armory Building studios during a typical year. “The garden itself is just amazing. There are so many textures and colors happening right now, which are perfect for learning. Drawing is really based on what you see and the process of bringing those details to the paper.” 

School of Visual Arts faculty member Himormi Okumura conducts class at the Hahn Horticulture Garden
Hiromi Okumura (pictured during an outdoor class at Hahn) and other faculty members in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies are getting creative with how they approach and use space in light of COVID-19 this semester. Photo by Chiravi Patel for Virginia Tech.

Okumura is one of many faculty members in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies who are getting creative with how they approach and use space in light of COVID-19 this semester. From familiar spaces made new – like Hahn – to resourceful collaborations, faculty are maximizing important face-to-face opportunities in ways that are both safe and impactful for students. In an effort to increase these options for faculty, the college even made an agreement with the Town of Blacksburg to use the covered pavilions at the Blacksburg Farmers Market as open-air classroom space.

For Okumura, the opportunity to meet for a class out in the harmony of nature doesn’t just make for a rich instructional experience and great artwork. She also realized that many students needed a way to connect with one another outside of virtual exchanges.

“We’re in a very isolating situation,” she said. “It can be hard for students to meet new people, to have little chats or other personal interactions. I think small conversations can make a big difference. I know they help my day, and I hope they help students, too.”

Kevin Flint, an undergraduate student majoring in computer engineering, couldn’t agree more. He took Okumura’s class this semester as a way to balance out a course load heavy in math and physics with a focus on machine learning.

“Within the broader context of what’s going on in the world right now, it’s been great to have a class outside where we can be with other people safely,” said Flint.

His art class with Okumura is one of only a few that regularly meet in person this semester and has become a highlight for that reason. “It’s such a relaxing class to be in,” he said. “It’s more than just a break from looking at a screen; it’s kind of like therapy. Just getting out and studying the environment around you and incorporating that into what we’re learning – it’s a huge stress reliever.”

The class has not only helped Flint explore the creative overlap between engineering and art, as he had hoped, but it also introduced him to the Hahn Horticulture Garden, a place on campus he’d never been before.

There have been important moments of discovery for Okumura, too. She plans to bring her art students to the garden for many semesters to come, regardless of COVID-19. “That’s a must from now on,” she said.