Off road instructor Ron Delgado and yours truly during graduation.

This past weekend I was very far from academia: dh and I attended an off-road driving clinic in the Anza-Borrego desert. Going on long road trips off the beaten track has been one of the best ways for us to disconnect and enjoy free time, or as it is called these days, “self-care.” My knowledge of driving off-road is rudimentary and experiential. After the workshop I feel much more comfortable with it, as now I understand the theory behind many decisions made on the road.

Just to clarify, off-roading is not what some (insert bad word here) did when they entered pristine areas of Joshua Tree or Death Valley National Parks and drove donuts on fragile ecosystems. Responsible off-roading means to use designed trails to drive to places not accessible on foot or “normal” vehicles, stay on those trails, follow a number of rules, being knowledgeable about vehicles and basic survival, and overall behave as adult human beings.

Funnily, during the workshop I could not leave my academic/scicomm hat completely behind- I was amazed and very impressed by the instructor (Ron Delgado) who led the 2-day workshop. Here is a list of some of the things he did, which are completely applicable for any scicomm/teaching experience:

  1. Setting the tone and expectations: as one of the few females in the group, I appreciated him saying up front that no macho attitudes would be allowed, and that one of his goals was for everybody to have fun. Through his words and actions, he created a community of mutual respect and trust.
  2. Use of visuals and simple analogies. There was a lecture in the beginning and then some on-the-ground demonstrations to explain basic concepts such as the “wheel cheat” and the importance of tire pressure. I have tried before to understand those, and found the explanations terribly boring and complicated. Doing it hands-on was night and day (active learning, anybody?)
  3. Use of visuals part 2. I am usually terrified on being sideways in a car. He had everybody driving up a hill so we were sideways, with a visual aid showing an incline of 28 degrees. Up to 30 degrees was safe. He told everybody to memorize how it looked like so we remember in the future that it was safe. Note: we had to.
  4. Scaffolding of the exercises. That is pretty obvious, but I appreciated when he showed at the end of day 1 the (steep) hill we were going to descend the next day. It added an element of choice. Everybody came back, but it was nice to know what to expect.
  5. Asking for feedback. At regular intervals, he asked for feedback- this is what you expected? How are we doing? Too much, too little? There were feedback forms at the end of day 1 to fill out (and at the end of day 2 also).
  6. Last but not least, encouragement and support. I did pretty well most of the time, but was terrified of the last hill. It took me a while to decide I would try it. Ron took some time to make it sure I was calm, and directed me (and all the others) via radio. He praised everybody who cleared the hill. In the higher education world, we are often told that “this” and “that” high tech gizmo/app/analytics will do the trick to identify the students falling behind, AI will send personalized messages, adaptive technologies will train students according to their needs and so on. But, at the end of the day, it takes a human connection between a teacher and a student to help that learning magic to happen.

I was happy and grateful to be reminded of the human side to learning. Thank you, Ron!