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CWU professor teaches a global audience during pandemic

CWU geology professor Nick Zentner has been teaching live lessons on YouTube during the coronavirus pandemic. (Screengrab from “Nick at Home” YouTube video)

As schools and universities in Washington state and around the country are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, teachers are using online tools to connect with students.

Nick Zentner, a geology professor at Central Washington University, has adapted to this new reality by streaming geology lessons live on YouTube, complete with Q&A sessions.

“It was just something I wanted to try to keep myself busy,” Zentner told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “That’s really the first thing to say. I’m just a calendar guy, wanted to put things on my calendar, and I started live streaming from the backyard. And before I knew it, there were folks from all over the world who were engaging pretty regularly.”

When Zentner started these online lessons, CWU was closed for spring break. Now that spring quarter is back in session with students tuning into class remotely, he said he does have some online responsibilities with his students but his backyard videos are just for fun.

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Speaking on video is not new to Zentner, as some viewers may recognize him from “Nick on the Rocks” on PBS.

“We do make some programs here for KCTS in Seattle and other PBS stations across the Northwest,” he said. “So I have a little practice kind of talking into a camera lens.”

In this case, however, it’s just an iPhone with a camera.

“The video and audio quality on that little dinky phone is amazing,” Zentner said. “And then I had to teach myself how to broadcast through YouTube, … [but] a chimpanzee could do it, I think.”

On his almost daily geology videos, Zentner said he gets questions from viewers of all ages.

“I have picked up on the fact that a lot of parents are using this as a home school opportunity,” he said. “So … there’s Patrick, age 6, and Evelyn, age 10, and then they’ve got questions. And then, of course, there’s people of all different ages typing in, and there’s also these different countries.”

Zentner said his videos on weeknights focus more on Washington-centric topics. Then on the weekends, he posts at a different time so his viewers in Asia and Europe can watch at a reasonable hour.

“And so then I pick topics that are a bit more global in scale, but … I’m a Washington guy. It’s all Washington based stuff,” he said. “And so it’s bizarre that somebody in Pakistan is on the edge of their chair, listening about Snoqualmie Falls or something. They’ll never come here, but they like the process. They like learning new things, and I think they feel some sort of connection as well.”

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For now, Zentner is not making any money off these videos.

“I’m just a geology guy with a relatively low-profile job at the university, and I’ve been allowed this freedom to kind of do this stuff for free, for the public, and I don’t want to get away from that” he said.

Especially with the stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures in place, Zentner has found that people just want to connect with someone.

“They want a real person so they don’t want some polished person,” Zentner laughed. ” … I’m dropping stuff, and the mic isn’t working … ”

“Nobody would accuse you of being polished,” Ross joked.

“That’s a compliment in a weird way, because they just want somebody real on the other end and so I’d hate to screw that up” Zentner said.

You can watch all the “Nick from Home” videos on Zentner’s website here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5 – 9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.


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