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science-journal

Our Community, Shining Through It All

Faced with the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, the college has stepped up for the next generation of scientists
10 November 2021
Julia Kregenow, teaching professor of astronomy and astrophysics, delivers an introductory astronomy lecture in the Bryce Jordan Center during thespring 2021 semester. Credit: Nate Follmer
Julia Kregenow, teaching professor of astronomy and astrophysics, delivers an introductory astronomy lecture in the Bryce Jordan Center during the spring 2021 semester. Credit: Nate Follmer

 

When the news first broke in late 2019 of a coronavirus outbreak in China, naturally it seemed so far away from Happy Valley.

But by early 2020, as the virus took hold in the United States, it was clear that a reckoning was at hand.

The pandemic was here, and although at that time no one could have foreseen its full impact, faculty and staff in the Penn State Eberly College of Science were already making changes and advancing new initiatives to help support the college’s undergraduate students through what would become the worst public health crisis of our lifetime.

Instruction

In the Office of Digital Learning, Director Melissa Hicks and her team were working with the college’s faculty to adapt their courses from in-person to remote and hybrid instruction—compiling resources for them to use, and hosting trainings and other group sessions where they could learn, brainstorm, and collaborate.

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Melissa Hicks, director of the Office of Digital Learning
Melissa Hicks, director of the Office of Digital Learning

Prompted by Senior Associate Dean for Instruction and Curricula Mary Beth Williams, Hicks and her team had begun preparing in late February for a shift in the instructional landscape due to COVID-19.

“She has this amazing sense of things that are coming,” Hicks said. “So, luckily our team had already started pulling resources together and offering trainings.”

Hicks also knew a core group of around 20 faculty with extensive experience in online instruction, having worked closely with her office to develop courses—including online labs—for Penn State World Campus, and they quickly formed a support network for other faculty, sharing course materials, strategies, and feedback.

“I think we’re really blessed that our faculty are scientists,” Hicks said. “They’re tinkerers, problem-solvers, and it was amazing to see the amount of sharing they were doing, everybody working together.”

As this network of faculty grew, Hicks leveraged her longstanding partnership with Jackie Bortiatynski, director of the college’s Center for Excellence in Science Education, to further the sense of community by hosting a virtual lunch and discussion group each month where the faculty could share what was working for them and what wasn’t—and work together to find solutions.

“Our faculty have a natural ability to figure out how to make things work,” Hicks said, “They’re really good at determining what their students need and how to best achieve that.”

Hicks and her team also worked with the faculty to consider different approaches to teaching and methods of assessing their students in the online environment and helped them to navigate and troubleshoot technical issues with remote instruction.

And they distributed a biweekly newsletter to the faculty, with updates from the University’s COVID-19 task groups; announcements of new and upcoming trainings; tips for improving online accessibility, student engagement, and assessment; videos and other resources developed by her team; and periodic surveys to gather feedback about the faculty’s needs, progress, and other experiences.

For her efforts, Hicks was recognized with a Dean’s Special Award in January 2021.

“I was very honored to get that award, and very appreciative of the recognition,” she said. “But I couldn’t have done it without my team—the whole team—and the people who supported us.”

 

Undergraduate students in CHEM 110B—which helps connect the principles of chemistry to the field of biology—thank their professors, Xin Zhang and Aaron Garner (top left), at the end of the fall 2020 term.
Undergraduate students in CHEM 110B—which helps connect the principles of chemistry to the field of biology—thank their professors, Xin Zhang and Aaron Garner (top left), at the end of the fall 2020 term.

 

Mentoring

In the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, knowing that some students would be starting the upcoming fall semester away from campus, Program Coordinator Amber Boston was developing a peer mentoring program to support remote first-year students from underrepresented communities.

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Amber Boston, program coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion
Amber Boston, program coordinator for the Office of
Diversity and Inclusion

Working with Associate Dean Kristin Finch, Assistant Director Samia Cooperider, and Carolyn Jensen, director of the college’s Academic Advising Center, Boston identified more than 40 such students and reached out to let them know about the program and other resources and support available through the diversity and inclusion office; at the same time, she offered a modest scholarship to select upper-level students—Bunton-Waller Scholars, Millennium Scholars, and other highly engaged students—to serve as mentors.

“It worked out that we had two mentees for each of our mentors, which was fantastic,” she said. “Two of our mentors actually had chosen to continue at home, so that was helpful—giving the mentees confirmation that starting from home is OK.”

Boston set up the program so mentors and mentees would chat at least once a week and attend at least two virtual events together to help connect the mentees with other students and groups and establish a sense of community with their peers.

She emailed the mentors regularly with events hosted by the college’s Office of Science Engagement and Penn State Student Affairs, “anything they could attend virtually with their mentee to get them connected with other students,” she said.

She also hosted monthly virtual meetups for everyone in the program, starting with a meet-and-greet event in September, followed by a workshop with representatives from Career Services in October, and wrapping up in November with a reflective session for the students to look back over the past semester and begin planning for the one ahead.

At that November meeting, Boston had the students each write an email to their future self, describing their first semester during the pandemic, and schedule it to be delivered at the end of the school year or after graduation, “so they’ll have something to look back at and remember everything they’ve experienced,” she said.

Feedback from both the mentors and mentees was overwhelmingly positive, Boston said, and she hopes to extend the program in some form even after students have returned to campus full time. 

“Hopefully it will continue to grow,” she said. “I would love to see that, to help students feel more connected and engaged and have that community.”

 

Lu Bai, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of physics (left), and Holly Kleinschmidt, a graduate student in Bai’s lab, inspect lung cancer cells under a microscope. Credit: Nate Follmer
Lu Bai, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and of physics (left), and Holly Kleinschmidt, a graduate student in Bai’s lab, inspect lung cancer cells under a microscope. Credit: Nate Follmer

 

Philanthropy

In the Office of Development and Alumni Relations, anticipating the pandemic’s financial impact on families and students, Senior Director Kim Neely and her team were working with Eberly alumni to secure donations for several funds to support the college’s undergraduates in need.

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Kim Neely, senior director of the Office of Development and Alumni Relations
Kim Neely, senior director of the Office of Development
and Alumni Relations

As the University announced a special initiative asking alumni to support the Student Care and Advocacy Fund, the college echoed the call and concurrently announced its own additional effort.

“The University was calling for an all-hands-on-deck effort, and we realized the fund was going to be overwhelmed by students from all across the University,” Neely said. “So we wanted to provide an additional resource for students in our majors.”

Neely reached out with an appeal to the college’s alumni, and with then Verne M. Willaman Dean Doug Cavener redesignated the college’s unrestricted Future Fund as a student emergency fund to receive the donations that rapidly began rolling in.

The emergency funding was then distributed by Associate Dean for Undergraduate Students Chris Palma and Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion Kristin Finch in the form of microscholarships to students facing emergency financial needs as a result of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Palma was auditing the college’s scholarships and discovered that the amount of financial support available to students in some majors was seriously lacking relative to others.

He and Neely raised the issue with the college’s development committee and subsequently devised a plan to improve the equity of the scholarship pool—by soliciting donations to grow the endowments for these underfunded programs and at the same time earmarking funds for recruiting high-performing prospective undergraduates from underrepresented communities.

With Verne M. Willaman Dean Tracy Langkilde, Neely promptly began setting meetings with prospective donors.

“Already we’ve seen gifts happen because of these conversations,” Neely said. “Our donors, friends, and alumni really stepped up and didn’t let COVID become a reason not to support our students this year.”

Through a third initiative, the University’s Educational Equity Matching Program, six new scholarships were established by alumni and friends of the college to support underrepresented students at Eberly; and through the same initiative, four new University-wide scholarships were also established by Eberly alumni.

“We’re a really close and grateful and earnest community in this college,” Neely said. “And I feel really fortunate to be doing what I’ve been doing—helping generous people provide resources to students and faculty to grow this community of Penn State scientists.”

 

Emily Jefferson, who graduated in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in science and minors in Psychology and Biology, observes and records the growth of bacteria in her MICRB 202: Introductory Microbiology Laboratory class during the fall 2020 semester. Students were outfitted with new masks, face shields, and gloves prior to every lab session, and their stations were set up to provide appropriate social  distancing. Credit: Patrick Mansell
Emily Jefferson, who graduated in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in science and minors in Psychology and Biology, observes and records the growth of bacteria in her MICRB 202: Introductory Microbiology Laboratory class during the fall 2020 semester. Students were outfitted with new masks, face shields, and gloves prior to every lab session, and their stations were set up to provide appropriate social  distancing. Credit: Patrick Mansell

 

Legacy

Although for many of us life has finally begun returning to normal, no one knows for sure what the future will look like, and experts say the effects of the pandemic will likely be felt for years to come.

But so too will the effects of these efforts by the Eberly college community, and countless more like them.

“The amazing work of our instructors, staff, alumni, and friends of the college—to ensure that our students continued to receive a world-class educational experience despite the many challenges of COVID-19—is a testament to the values we as Penn Staters strive to live by every day,” Langkilde said. “If there is a silver lining to this pandemic, it may very well be the humanity we’ve shown one another in the face of unprecedented adversity, and our resolve to work together to achieve the best possible outcome.”

 

Students enjoy a beautiful day on the Old Main lawn. Credit: Michelle Bixby
Students enjoy a beautiful day on the Old Main lawn. Credit: Michelle Bixby

At the Eberly College of Science, we are committed to recruiting, retaining, and equitably supporting a diverse student population.

From our longstanding Future Fund, which supports any Eberly student in need, to emerging efforts like our Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s prehealth summer bridge program, which will support historically underrepresented incoming first-year undergraduates interested in pursuing careers in the health fields, we have a number of opportunities available for you to contribute to our students’ success.

If you would like to start a conversation about supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion at Eberly through these or other initiatives, please contact Kim Neely, senior director of development and alumni relations, at (814) 863-1247 or kan2@psu.edu.