So much has changed since we sent the first issue of Impact. What began as a typically enjoyable and productive academic year in the fall of 2019 and early 2020 transformed abruptly during Spring Break, when the University decided to “pivot to remote.” Thus began pandemic mode: a crash course in Zoom for our students, faculty, and staff; incredible efforts by all to deliver on our mission under incredibly stressful conditions; and the semester culminating in a graduation ceremony that in some aspects was more engaging than the pomp and circumstance of the traditional commencement but lacked the thrill of the in person event. Despite hurdles this summer, courses were remotely delivered, many internships were conducted, and virtual reality field trips were offered. You’ll read herein about some of the summer activities we sponsored.
The killing of George Floyd and ensuing turmoil heightened our awareness of longstanding inequities and the acute need to diversify our faculty, staff, and student body while creating a more inclusive and supportive campus environment. This fall we offered our classes in various modes to accommodate the extra classroom space needed for social distancing, and we are doing so in the spring as well, until the virus is under control. There are daily challenges, but as we address these we continue to plan ahead, taking the lessons we are learning from the pandemic and social unrest, asking how we might emerge a better place to work and learn.
Two lessons are clear: it is important to be considered essential, and we benefit from being resilient. Higher education was deemed essential, so we were allowed to continue while many businesses, including some of the auxiliary enterprises of the University, were suspended. The economic stress of the pandemic caused many of our students, their parents, and our supporters—alumni, industry, federal agencies, nonprofits—to reconsider their investment in higher education. This tells us that we need to ensure that we continue to be considered essential to student career success, and to solving important societal problems through our research, innovation, and outreach.
Our resilience was demonstrated through the skills of the John A. Dutton e-Education Institute learning designers, who provided one-to one support to instructors during the transition to remote and whose expansive library of online resources, developed over the years with the faculty, was drawn upon to enhance the remote learning experience of our students. We expect that the trend toward student demand for a component of online learning will continue, and we need to grow that capacity.
Tools like Zoom proved essential to our ability not only to deliver our courses, but to stay engaged with our students through advising and to reach out to prospective and newly enrolled students through highly successful virtual events, especially Earth and Mineral Sciences EXposition (EMEX) and Total Engagement with EMS (TEEMS), the new first-year orientation and engagement event that replaced TOTEMS. We found that we were able to expand participation and reach new audiences with these virtual events; we need to avail ourselves of technological advances like this in the future to enhance our in-person events, which will return!
Our researchers were also resilient, able to progress on their projects by switching to data analysis, numerical modeling, and paper and proposal writing. We need to ensure that all of our students become proficient in data analytics and numerical modeling so that they too have the tools to be productive even when laboratories are closed and field work becomes impossible.
You’ll see some instances of research productivity fueled by data analytics and relevant to the pandemic in this issue of Impact, including “viral” maps and understanding the threats dust storms pose to communities.
Best of luck to you all as we weather this pandemic together, and as always, stay in touch.