Environmental geographer Michelle Shuey empowers students during pandemic

Michelle Shuey wants to be sure her students don’t feel depressed from all the things that are happening in the world these days. The environmental geographer wants them to stay focused on their studies and feel empowered about what they can do to improve the quality of the environment.

By Kiaria Zoi Nakamura.

Portrait of Michelle Shuey inset against a NASA image of Hawai‘i Island taken from space.
Michelle Shuey. Background image of Hawai‘i Island by NASA.

Michelle Shuey, instructor of geography and environmental sciences at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, believes that her role as an educator is “to help students see their relationship with the environment, and ways they can better that relationship, to then create a more sustainable future.” She says, “What I do in class to try to influence this mindset is to make sure that all the assignments are focused on the reality of the student’s life.”

Shuey teaches courses on natural resources, geographic data, environmental impact assessment, environmental science, natural hazards and disasters, the natural environment, and others. Her research focuses on the relationship between humans and nature, and how people see and create nature as they believe it to exist based on cultural, religious, or societal beliefs.

Using the knowledge gained from her bachelor degree in geography and environmental sciences from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, master degree in parks, recreation, and tourism management from Clemson University, and a doctorate in environmental geography from Texas State University, she tries to help students realize the impact their choices have on the world around them.

“If students learn things, and never connect it to real life, they don’t remember it. I want to make sure my students don’t feel depressed from all the things that are happening,” she says. “They should feel empowered that they know what they can do to improve the quality of the environment.”

Shuey is also sure to uphold these ideals when acting as co-advisor for the Students of Sustainability (SOS) and Garden clubs, member of the UH Hilo Sustainability Committee, and coordinator for Earth Day. Shuey will also be the supervisor of an Americorps VISTA volunteer who will start at UH Hilo this spring to help with increasing sustainability on campus.

Building relationships online

Upon hearing the initial news of mandatory distance learning, Shuey says, “I was pretty scared that I wasn’t going to be successful as a teacher online. I had no experience with online teaching.” She continues, “I feel like a lot of my success in the classroom is based on the relationships I build with students. I like to let them know that I want to know them as a person and that I respect who they are. This also helps to catch students who fall through the cracks.”

Shuey goes on to say, “I didn’t know if building those same relationships online would be possible, and so I was really worried.”

To develop a sense of consistency during the pandemic, Shuey first had to think empathetically. She says, “I tried to imagine what it would be like being a freshman or sophomore again, living in the dorms or an apartment, where suddenly your part-time job is gone, you don’t have to be on campus, and you don’t know if you’re going to be forced to move.”

Shuey adds, “This is a major upheaval and it creates a lot of stress. The last thing I wanted to do was to add to that stress, so I made sure to communicate as much as possible with my students.”

Taking it a step further, she also made sure to follow up with students if she didn’t get a response or message of confirmation from them. “I hounded them until they responded to me so that I knew they were okay,” says Shuey.

Ultimately, this is how Shuey came to the decision that she would not be using any new technological apps or platforms when converting online. She explains, “I thought the last thing my students needed was to learn something else while they were in the middle of a move or scared out of their minds if a family member had COVID.”

“A lot of my students were going home and having more stress added to their lives, so I stuck with Laulima, something they already knew,” says Shuey about the long-established distance learning system of the University of Hawai‘i System. “I’ve actually heard from some students who are over having to go to seven different places for assignments, and that’s why I’ve continued using Laulima.”

Laptop with Laulima instructions for teachers.
In the transition to online teaching, Michelle Shuey decided to stick with the tried-and-true UH System distance learning platform Laulima, so her students only had to adjust to that and Zoom for her classes. The UH Online Innovation Center offered tutorials (sample above) to meet both faculty and student needs during the transition. Photo from UH Online Innovation Center.

The pros of Shuey’s resolution to only require her students to familiarize themselves with Laulima and Zoom can be seen in her active student participation rates.

Shuey says, “I’ve noticed that a lot of the students who are shyer, who maybe would not have been speaking up in the classroom, are going nuts in the chat.” She explains, “ I’ll have the regular class open and I can see everyone so I can follow their body language and gestures. And then I’ll have the chat open in another window, and the students who are normally quiet are just going crazy having conversations with me.”

Between trying to respond to the chat and talking to the students, Shuey has found that in some cases, she is actually getting more student participation in discussions. She thinks this is because “Now, there are more ways to participate instead of just speaking out loud.”

Shuey also notes that “My attendance is almost identical to my regular classes. I normally don’t have many students miss my classes, and I’m not having many students miss my Zoom ones either.”

The fact that students continue to show up for class amidst these very trying times is not just a sign of their personal commitments to education. It also speaks to Shuey’s ability to maintain their interest while also preserving the low-stress environment she mentioned earlier.

Rave reviews

In an anonymous survey which asked students for feedback on instructors’ performances on moving to distance learning, one student calls Shuey a “gem.” This student writes, “She struggled and worried about getting us information since our lectures are interaction-based, but she did not fall short on that end, even without a proper device to help the class continue.”

The student goes on, “She did everything she could and once she got hold of a laptop, the course took a turn for the better.” Some things the student found especially helpful were Shuey’s PowerPoints, often accompanied by voiceovers, and her recordings of Zoom lectures which students could refer back to in case they weren’t able to attend class.

“She was super quick to respond to emails, even if it was at 3am HST. I felt as if she barely slept at all,” writes the student.

Since teaching online, Shuey admits to working 11 to 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week. She says, “I’m not good at stepping back. I was really worried in the spring and I did a lot of extra work to create an environment conducive for all types of students. I plan trips to the grocery store because I’m worried I’m not working enough.”

Contrary to Shuey’s fear, the surveyed student writes, “She prepared a lot of practice tests for us to take to aid in our understanding of the topics. If I am being completely honest, all my grades in my other classes went up because of her.”

“She made me realize that teachers were working extra hard to keep up with their courses, just as us students are. That made me work even harder in all my classes,” writes the student. “I wanted instructors to see that I am doing well because they were doing so well. My grades prove that they did what they needed to do and they did it well during this hard time.”

Upholding her passion for student achievement, Shuey encourages students to keep communicating and advocating for themselves. She says, “We’re all living and working in unique times and circumstances. I may not be doing as good of a job at catching people who are in trouble. Help me help you.”


Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.