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Inside DELTA: 5 Questions with Cathi Dunnagan

For the last 14 years, Senior Instructional Designer Cathi Dunnagan (née Phillips) has worked at DELTA and on July 1, 2022, she’s retiring. Since 2008, Dunnagan has worked with faculty and fellow DELTA staff to solve instructional challenges using technology. 

Project highlights for Dunnagan include Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions for summers 2020, 2021 and 2022 and Virtual Reality organic chemistry labs. Eight of the DELTA Grants projects Dunnagan has worked on have won the Gertrude Cox Award, honoring innovative excellence in teaching and learning with technology. After an impactful career, Dunnagan has been able to reflect on her time at DELTA with pride.

Dunnagan also served as Staff Senate Chair for its 23rd session in 2017-18. She was responsible for serving on the University Council and the UNC Staff Assembly. As Staff Senate Chair, Dunnagan encouraged communication, collaboration and connection.

How would you describe your position to someone unfamiliar with DELTA?

At DELTA, Dunnagan wears a lot of hats. As a senior instructional designer, Dunnagan mainly works with faculty on DELTA Grant projects — often with the title of project lead or instructional design lead. 

“I bring my instructional design expertise to solving instructional challenges by applying technologies to higher education, creating innovative and engaging student experiences,” Dunnagan said. 

In addition to her normal job duties, Dunnagan also serves on DELTA Council and WolfWare governance’s best practices and support committee. 

What has been the most challenging part of your job?

“The most challenging aspect has been keeping up with the constantly changing technologies,” Dunnagan said. “Technology keeps changing, which is a good thing because the price comes down allowing us to do more innovative and immersive experiences. But because the platforms keep changing, we have to keep abreast of how we can keep our projects viable.”

One example is virtual reality (VR) technology, one of Dunnagan’s specialties. VR has been around for over

Dunnagan with mom Dot McGraw and NC State mascot Ms. Wuf at a football game against Marshall University.
Dunnagan with mom Dot McGraw and Ms. Wuf at a football game against Marshall University.

20 years, but new technologies like Google Cardboard arrived on the scene with a low cost that enabled us to adopt VR as an educational technology and create an inexpensive and easily accessible immersion experience for a broad audience. But when Google Chrome stopped supporting our selected platform, DELTA’s team had to seek out a solution. 

Another challenge came about when Adobe Flash program, a key component for a lot of Dunnagan’s work, was disabled by Adobe in 2021. 

“A lot of the work I’d done from 2008 and forward, and the work that DELTA had been doing for a couple years before that, suddenly lost access to Flash,” Dunnagan said. “So we had to come up with solutions on how we could still make that content available to students, whether it’s an animation of a scientific process that we needed, or it was the full-blown Trot-to-Trophy game, all done in Flash. We had to find new ways that we could preserve these and still make it available to students, which we did.”

“Innovation is challenging! And those challenges keep us innovating!”

What has been the best part of your job?

What makes Dunnagan’s job special is the people at DELTA working together toward the same goal of student success. 

“It can be tough at times, but we all work together. We collaborate and make it happen — it’s that collaboration and striving for the common goal that makes all the hard work worth it. And, exploring new technologies together. We bring people with different perspectives together, looking to find the solutions to these instructional challenges, and that’s just a sheer delight. I have worked a lot of places in my career, but the experience of working in the collaborative environment that we have at DELTA is very special.”

Dr. Tom Stafford presents Cathi Dunnagan with the key to the Memorial Belltower.
Dr. Tom Stafford presents Dunnagan with the key to the Memorial Belltower.

Dunnagan said the best part of her job has been working with faculty. Dunnagan recalls an early project with Professor Emeritus Joan Eisemann in the animal nutrition department. Eisemann applied for a DELTA Grant despite her self-described technophobia, but she was willing to give it all a try. Eisemann and Professor Sung Woo Kim taught this distance education (DE) course in opposing semesters, and during their DELTA Grant they essentially created their own textbook with videos and photos, working with Dunnagan and the DELTA team as students went through the first semester. By the time the second year the course rolled around with all of the content created, Dunnagan got a call from Eisemann. 

“She said, ‘I have to thank you. I’ve been lecturing for 15 years. With this DE course I’m teaching again. My students are stopping me as I cross campus and talking to me about the course and saying hello!’  That still gives me chills to this day. I had encouraged her to be on camera to give her students a sense of her being present in the course. Because of that, her DE students, who never met her face-to-face, knew who she was and recognized her when they saw her on campus and connected.”

That course is one of the eight winners of the Gertrude Cox Award that Dunnagan worked on. 

What are your favorite projects you worked on at DELTA?

More Gertrude Cox Award-winners make up other memorable endeavors for Dunnagan. Continuing her strong suit in VR, Dunnagan worked with Senior Faculty Development Specialist and Teaching Professor Maria Gallardo-Williams to create interactive labs intended for students unable to attend in-person labs, such as pregnant students, deployed military students and disabled students. 

“We found that in a comparison study between face-to-face, in person students versus virtual reality students, the students in the virtual reality class did equally as well on the lab worksheets,” Dunnagan said. “The biggest difference was two weeks later when they took the exam. The students who had participated in the virtual lab appeared to retain the information longer. They had better test scores on that information than the students who were in person.”

This project won a 2015-16 Gertrude Cox Award, but that isn’t the whole story of this project. In March 2020, when the world was shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these labs were opened up to the world using a Google Site

“We opened it up, and we have documented more than 40 universities that have emailed Gallardo-Williams and said ‘we are using your organic chemistry labs to teach chemistry.’ It’s phenomenal,” Dunnagan said. “One high school in Brazil had 16 students in the class, one textbook and no lab equipment.  After using the labs we created, the students shared that they felt empowered and ready to go to university because they had experienced our virtual labs.”

This project soared above and beyond its original goal of student inclusion. In addition to an open educational resource, the team was determined to make students feel like they too could be a part of science. 

“Diversity was the coolest part of this study because we intentionally selected the five teaching assistants with this important factor in mind,” Dunnagan said. “We’ve had students in our studies that said ‘I can see myself as a scientist. This person looks like me. I can see changing my degree to science.’ They felt it was a very personal experience.”

One of Dunnagan’s more recent projects is Wicked Problems, Wolfpack Solutions, a free, online, two-credit hour class all first-year and transfer students are automatically enrolled in starting in the summer 2020. This project was sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic; because students were not attending in-person summer orientation, administrators wanted to find a way to get 5,000 students acclimated to NC State while staying home. 

Because of Dunnagan’s expertise in massive open online courses (MOOC), Senior Vice Provost Tom Miller called upon her to help with this course. It was a short turnaround — only five weeks stood between the start of the project and day one of online classes. 

Because the team wanted to feature 35 presenters in the course, they had to get creative with the content production. The course was produced and recorded prior to and during the summer session while students took the class. Faculty members chose between a video, a podcast or a public livestream with questions from students. 

The 2020 class was focused on, no surprise, pandemics, and the team highlighted many pandemic-related professors and experts on NC State’s campus. 

“We had 1,066 students that completed the pandemics course,” Dunnagan said. “Those are phenomenal numbers. More than 20% of the students who took this fully online class, pretty much self-directed, passed, and they got two hours free credit. It was a remarkable success.”

Since 2020, Dunnagan has helped produce 2021’s course focused on global change, and this year’s course, “The Future of Food,” which goes live June 27. 

What do you do outside of your work at DELTA?

In her free time, Dunnagan loves to travel and immerse herself in other cultures. She has accompanied students to Mexico and Belize on service and educational trips. Additionally, Dunnagan had the opportunity to live in The Hague for six months. 

In her upcoming retirement, Dunnagan is excited to explore herself and her interests. Dunnagan’s undergraduate degree is in fine arts, so she’s been looking forward to painting and other artistic endeavors.

Cathi and Dan Dunnagan at Kure Beach, North Carolina.
Cathi and Dan Dunnagan at Kure Beach, North Carolina.

For Dunnagan, nearing retirement means reflection upon her career at DELTA. 

“It’s fascinating to look back,” Dunnagan said. “Part of the preparation for retirement I’ve had to do is go back through my files and transfer the ownership of digital files to others for reference materials. It has been very interesting to look back to 2008 and see the amazing work that I’ve been involved in. It is a fascinating journey.”

Dunnagan is proud of her accomplishments with DELTA and is proud of what she has been able to do for NC State and higher education. 

“I think people should take time to reflect and look back very often instead of what I have done in my career. I just keep moving forward, pushing forward, always wondering ‘what else can we do? What else can I do?’” Dunnagan said. “And, I love those moments when we stop and reflect on what we have accomplished, how amazing that experience is as an individual, but also as a team, making positive changes to higher education.”

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