The workshop’s second virtual session explored innovative approaches that institutions, departments, and programs have been using to move course-based undergraduate research, laboratory courses, internships, and practicums online to mitigate interruptions to degree completion, while at the same time addressing issues that might prevent many students from accessing these online offerings. The session also discussed some ways in which graduate students have needed to alter their research plans. One panel featured presentations by students reflecting on their real-life experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. Break out discussions focused on specific topics (field work, laboratory work, internships, clinical training, and research mentorship) as part of facilitated discussions with the students, institutional representatives and domain experts. Designated reporters shared information discussed in the breakout sessions with the larger group to allow for documentation of issues and innovations in student research experiences.
Five students presented their experiences of how COVID-19 has affected their research, clinical training, and internships. Jezella Peraza, a fourth-year undergraduate at California State University, Monterey Bay, said she was unable to go on a 10-day research cruise as part of her summer internship and lost the opportunity to network with scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Obstacles she had to overcome included securing a laptop that could handle the data and technology demands of her project and finding a quiet place in her parents’ home to analyze thousands of pictures for 8 hours a day. Peraza said that going virtual helped her work on coding skills with the aid of her mentor virtually. It also helped her learn new skills such as making online presentations.
Jonathan Rivera, a cybersecurity major at Kean University, said his project shifted to a completely virtual format consisting of online workshops and weekly Zoom meetings. One workshop taught Rivera and his fellow students how to hone their elevator pitches, creating a virtual space where they could practice their pitches and get immediate feedback from their cohort. Communicating among team members while fully virtual was indeed challenging, but the virtual format conferred a number of compensating benefits such as the ability to share screens in Zoom to show his work progress to both his mentors and the other students and the ability that Google Docs gives the user to collaborate on manuscripts in real time.
Chemical engineering PhD student Camden Cutright from North Carolina State University said that he became a better planner once his laboratory transitioned to a rotating work schedule. One challenge is that this schedule limits spontaneous student interactions, making it difficult to find collaborators with whom to discuss ideas. Perhaps the biggest effect of
the COVID-19 pandemic has been on undergraduates who are losing research experiences, and Cutright recalled that his undergraduate research experience convinced him to pursue a PhD and smoothed out his transition to graduate school. He suggested that institutions launch an initiative to reinvest in undergraduate research programs.
Jhoselin Padilla-Castro, a nursing student at the University of Central Florida, returned to her “very Latin household” for four months, during which time she had to continue paying rent on the apartment in Orlando that she shared with a roommate, creating financial difficulties. She also had to explain to her family that she needed to maintain a strict separation between her study area (her room) and family hangout space (the kitchen). She was pleasantly surprised that her family supported and encouraged her work at home. The main downside she identified has been the loss of hands-on experience, an essential part of nursing training. During her medical-surgical clinical rotation, she and her classmates participated in evidence-based practice reviews, which were more informative than reading about procedures in a textbook, and she was surprised at how much of what she learned in those reviews she was able to translate into clinical practice.
Trevonn Gyles, a recent graduate from Morehouse College, reflected on how the COVID-19 pandemic altered his plans for a gap year fellowship that was supposed to include working in a German neuroscience laboratory before starting his PhD program at Mount Sinai. He had spent much of his senior year preparing for this fellowship, taking German language classes, fulfilling a volunteering requirement, and checking off various U.S. State Department requirements. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the fellowship program was cancelled, he instead landed a short-term research experience at the University of Maryland’s School of Medicine and then headed to Mount Sinai early, where he worked in a laboratory. He noted that his faculty sponsors and mentors played a significant role in helping him quickly line up alternatives to the fellowship experience, something he could not have done on his own.
To further explore the issues that the student presenters raised, the workshop attendees participated in 30-minute Zoom breakout discussions on the challenges of engaging research and clinical experiences during a pandemic. Reporting back on the discussions about field work and off-campus research, Corey Garza from California State, Monterey Bay, said a theme in his group was the challenge of accessing reliable Internet connectivity and finding a computer with enough computational power to work with the large datasets common in field research. Another theme was the disappointment students expressed about missing their field research experience. Elsa Villa from the University of Texas at El Paso said that her group’s discussions about NSF’s undergraduate research programs also highlighted the disappointment students felt about missing their hands-on research experience, as well as the challenge of building community while working virtually.
Laura Demarse from North Carolina State University said that the internships and practicums discussion focused on the need for information about how to get a practicum placement done in a virtual environment and how to replace cancelled internship and practicum programs. That breakout group was concerned that applications to graduate programs would decline, given the lack of senior research experiences. In the clinical and medical training programs breakout, Francisco Guido-Sanz from the University of Central Florida noted that one of the benefits of having to examine new technologies and new avenues for participating in
research through online modalities is the opportunity to deploy these new approaches once the COVID-19 pandemic is over to make research more engaging for students. This group’s other concerns included the challenges involved in satisfying requirements for clinical hours and enrolling patients in clinical trials when in-person opportunities are limited.
Triscia Hendrickson from Morehouse College reported that the mentoring breakout group discussed the need to create more numerous channels of communication and contact in the virtual world to allow students to access mentors, and mentors to check on the well-being of their mentees. This group suggested establishing learning communities to replicate on-campus engagement in a virtual environment and noted that while virtual classes and workshops could boost attendance, the online format increases the challenge of engaging students to be active participants and limits spontaneity that can spark ideas. At the same time, in some ways a kinder research culture appears to be developing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as are new opportunities for networking in a virtual world. Graduate students are, for example, now able to attend virtual conferences that might otherwise be too far away geographically.
Heather Thiry from the University of Colorado Boulder summarized the themes she was hearing. She described the need to ensure students have access to opportunities, can build community, and feel empowered, as well as the need for institutional structures to be nimble in order to address challenges.
Matthew Hora from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, presented results about college internships from a survey of almost 1,600 students at five universities completed before the COVID-19 pandemic. Of these students, 30 percent had an internship. Of the 70 percent who did not have internships, 64 percent wanted them but could not because of reasons that included intruding work responsibilities, unmet childcare needs, or studying a field where few internships exist. One disturbing trend is that colleges and universities, his institution included, are outsourcing internship placements to third-party vendors. One vendor, for example, offers micro-internships that last from four to 40 hours. Hora characterized this as “academic gig labor” (the outsourcing of mini-projects to college students by companies), and he noted that there is a good deal of nervousness about this model within academia in that it is “normalizing precarious labor for students in the midst of a recession,” said Hora.
Sherilynn Black from Duke University said that the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified issues regarding structural racism and equal access to research opportunities, in part because students and faculty are increasingly stressed by the changes brought on by COVID-19, which in turn has had the effect of heightening biases. Faculty have told Black that students are having a difficult time focusing on their research projects, and some are even reconsidering their career choices and questioning their future potential contributions to society. She worries that the combined effect of COVID-19 and racial strife on the mental health of students, particularly those from underrepresented groups, could lead to a generation of STEM professionals that is less diverse than it should be.
James Hewlett from Finger Lakes Community College mentioned the Biological Collections in Ecology and Evolution Network,1 a project that is developing courses and course modules that rely on digitized natural history museum collections as a source of data for
undergraduate research. This project, he noted, creates the opportunity for community colleges to continue to offer research opportunities for their students. Taking advantage of these types of opportunities, though, requires having reliable Internet access, an issue that previous speakers had also noted.
Clay Gloster, Jr. from North Carolina A&T State University developed a plan that facilitated the resumption of student research during the COVID-19 pandemic in stages that prioritized which research projects should return to campus first, paying particular attention to projects for students close to completing their theses and dissertations. Gloster said that he worked remotely over the summer on a research project with a high school student who lived an hour away. Juan Ramírez Lugo from the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, noted that this was an example of a more student-centered approach that may not have happened prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and that we have an opportunity to see student engagement in research differently and to build community and a kinder research culture.
Black remarked that the same scramble by health care systems to increase their telemedicine capabilities after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—which increased access for people from rural areas and other remote communities2—might produce a similar increase in access to research for students who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to participate in such projects. Online venues, she added, can allow students to see what a laboratory looks like or to attend research talks given at remote locations. She has noticed that people from around the country are attending her online presentations. Institutions have also approached her to provide culturally aware mentor training for faculty via videoconferencing. Black hopes that this increased interest in professional development and increased empathy and cultural awareness will continue into the post-COVID-19 era. Gloster added that faculty have become more interested in taking mentor training during the COVID-19 pandemic. He also noted the increase in attendance at an annual symposium drawing together researchers from outside of his institution and the larger attendance at dissertation and thesis presentations on videoconference, especially by family members.
Hora noted two positives from the COVID-19 pandemic: students are gaining remote work skills that companies are looking for, and employers are having to think more intentionally about the nature of the tasks they assign their interns. The downside is that the latter requires more resources on the part of companies, which can limit the number of internships they can offer.
Hewlett remarked that the COVID-19 pandemic has opened many eyes to the reality that the organization of institutions of higher learning really has not changed much since the 16th century. On the other hand, there are many examples of individuals who are trying new, innovative ways of educating students and sustaining research opportunities. Black and Hewlett offered a similar vision that calls on institutions of higher education to seriously consider the best new ways to meet student needs at all levels instead of returning to the status quo once the COVID-19 pandemic is over.
Summarizing the takeaways from the day’s discussions, Hiranao Okahana from the Council of Graduate Schools noted that the changing nature of networking and cooperation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has created more opportunities for people to come together and make research more inclusive. He acknowledged, though, that virtual engagements
2 Hirko, K A., Kerver, J.M., Ford, S., Szafranski, C., Beckett, J., Kitchen, C., and Wendling, A.L. (2020). Telehealth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Implications for rural health disparities, Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association 27(11):1816–1818. https://doi.org/10.1093/jamia/ocaa156.
do not work for everyone. One challenge he heard about is the effort to ensure that students have access to technology and a reliable Internet connection so that they can access the data needed to advance their research while working remotely. Other challenges included finding dedicated workspace at home, attending to the psychological and emotional needs of students in a remote working environment, and accounting for lost research and training opportunities in graduate school admission practices, particularly for students from traditionally underrepresented communities. Okahana stressed the importance of using the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to examine carefully how higher education is structured. The notion of creating a kinder, more compassionate, more culturally aware research culture resonated strongly with him.