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Alberta professor crafts online avalanche course using Playmobil characters amid COVID-19

A professor at MRU has crafted his own way to continue teaching an avalanche course amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
A professor at MRU has crafted his own way to continue teaching an avalanche course amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Mount Royal University

A professor at Mount Royal University has crafted a way to bring a backcountry course indoors amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, institutions were asked to take their classes online as the virus forced the closure of schools across the province, but that didn’t stop associate professor Ian Sherrington from creating a virtual avalanche program for his students.

READ MORE: Alberta government redirects school funding into COVID-19 response; NDP calls move ‘unconscionable’

As part of a winter backcountry travel course at MRU, students are required to complete an outdoor avalanche training session, and Sherrington made that possible by fashioning an interactive lesson using Playmobil figurines.

“I decided to see this as an opportunity to find creative ways to engage students who are used to active, experiential learning,” Sherrington said.

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A scene crafted using Playmobil characters as part of an online avalanche training course at MRU.
A scene crafted using Playmobil characters as part of an online avalanche training course at MRU. Mount Royal University

With the help of his wife, the couple crafted virtual avalanche scenes in their backyard which helped students explore route-finding methods, information gathering, effective group management and avalanche rescue, Sherrington said.

“After we were set up, I then took photographs and wove them into a virtual scenario that walked the students through every step of the leadership, decision making and actions involved in creating a safe and enjoyable backcountry experience.”

READ MORE: Calgary man’s escape from avalanche caught on camera

Since Calgary experienced some April snow showers, Sherrington added his students were able to effectively apply what they learned through the course to the outdoors.

“Once I had given them the theory of avalanche searches, the students were then able to go to their local parks and practice,” he said.

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“We were blessed with snow in town until well into April, which made this work extremely well.”