Colleges and universities have worked to provide their student communities, including their science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students, with resources to help them adjust to challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. This third virtual session explored examples of support structures and strategies provided by colleges and universities before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and considered the importance of providing structure and flexibility to students, especially those who need the greatest support. Panel discussions considered how institutions can maintain student engagement and involvement and discussed ideas for building community in departments, disciplines, courses, and clubs as well as the importance of academic counseling, tutoring, mentoring, mental health care, and ensuring that students are not lacking appropriate technology, food, housing, or other supports necessary for their general wellness. The speakers also explored how the goals and expectations for undergraduate and graduate student experiences might be permanently altered by the current challenges and changes. In addition, this session discussed how student engagement experiences can be made more inclusive for all students regardless of their gender, race and ethnicity, socioeconomic, nationality, learning challenges, disabilities, and/or caregiving responsibilities. Tasha Inniss noted that even when a large percentage of students are away from campus, it is still important to build social communities among STEM students as one way of supporting them during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The first panel discussed their experiences providing or coordinating supports to students to assist them with their academic needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sarah Bergfeld from the Western eTutoring Consortium explained that the eTutoring consortium uses an app to pair students and tutors together online. Institutions join the consortium and contribute their tutors to a combined tutor schedule, allowing schools with limited tutoring staff to share their tutors in exchange for providing their students with access to tutors at any time. Student use of eTutoring services has increased more than four-fold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wilson Lozano from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, Bayamon Campus, discussed his institution’s use of peer-led team learning (PLTL) to engage Hispanic college students in STEM. This effort involves the university’s computing research and engineering lab, a teaching and research laboratory that also brings together all the services a student might need such as counseling, leadership development opportunities, and peer mentoring. The COVID-19 pandemic, noted Lazano, has created a great opportunity to integrate co-curricular activities into student experiences rather than have them seen as something separate from classes. Including
these nonclass activities helped to create a sense of community that the students were lacking while campuses were closed.
Adrean Askerneese from MiraCosta College spoke about using virtual counseling to engage with students at various levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that virtual counseling can assist students with career and education planning; provide intentional community connections, consistent points of contact, and support for students throughout their educational journey; and he also believes that developing a comprehensive student education plan in each student’s first year can help to close the equity gap in persistence for Black, Hispanic, and adult students.
Melissa McDaniels from the Center for the Improvement of Mentored Experiences in Research discussed structured mentorship education programs to train both mentors and mentees so that they can become more effective in their roles. McDaniels and her colleagues have developed a collaborative process using trained facilitators to engage both mentors and mentees in efforts to improve the mentoring relationship, design shared goals, and develop a mutually agreed-upon plan to achieve those goals remotely.1 They also developed a facilitator guide for faculty—Reassess-Realign-Reimagine: A Guide for Mentors Pivoting to Remote Research Mentoring2—to help them use technology more effectively in engaging students.
Lev Gonick from Arizona State University (ASU) noted that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, his institution held some 1.3 million Zoom sessions for teaching, office hours, practicums, field work, PhD dissertation presentations, and other activities. Two-thirds of ASU’s classes have used Slack for collaboration, and the university has over 6,000 Slack workspaces, many of which support co-curricular activities such as student clubs, e-sports, and peer-to-peer laboratory sections. In addition, to better equip its 3,000-plus students from tribal communities, ASU distributed over 1,700 laptops and created 1,500 hotspots so that all students could continue their education, receive the wraparound services previous speakers discussed, and persist to degree completion. ASU also developed a system of virtual internships that Govnick characterized as robust, which enabled students to work with companies and organizations worldwide.
Enrico Pontelli from New Mexico State University said that when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the university decided to go online with its summer computer camps for middle and high school students, which are organized and led by undergraduates, and 78 students enrolled in one of three Zoom camps. The camps offered daily classes taught by undergraduate computer science students and activities designed to create social capital, build confidence, and help students create a sense of belonging in the computer science field. One benefit of having a virtual camp is that it brought in students from across New Mexico. One-half of the participants said the virtual camps were either on par with face-to-face camps or better, though some students felt less comfortable asking questions in the virtual environment, an issue for which breakout rooms were a useful solution. Shipping boxes with the kits that every student would need for the camp proved to be a challenge, though. Internet access was also problematic for camp
1 Pfund, C., Branchaw, J.L., and Handelsman, J. (2015). Entering Mentoring Version 2. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman. Branchaw, J., Pfund, C., and Rediske, R. (2010). Entering Research: Workshops for Students Beginning Research in Science. New York, NY: Macmillan.
participants who lived in remote communities. On the other hand, organizers found the ability to link students to mentors outside of the university, including mentors from the same backgrounds as the students, to be an unexpected advantage of moving online. Another unexpected benefit was the ability to engage with the students’ families.
One fundraising campaign at Florida A&M University enabled students to get needed resources such as laptops and Internet connectivity once the students were sent home during spring break. As Shereada Harrell explained, she contacted alumni who had experienced the 2008 Great Recession to talk to students about the importance of being resilient. She and her colleagues also created online extracurricular content that they pushed out to students via text messages, email, and social media. They also held a virtual career fair that increased access for both employers and students, and they had about 30 Zoom calls a week with employers who want to recruit their students.
Adriana Salerno from Bates College said that her institution brought students and faculty back to campus, after which some 75 percent of the faculty taught and 90 percent of the students attended class in person. To accommodate extracurricular activities, the college has been looking into how to simplify and streamline some of those activities while also maintaining a sense of belonging and community for its students. One member of the math department, for example, started an Islamic pattern drawing club that meets in person and on Zoom every Thursday evening, and instead of having a math lunch in the dining hall each week, students and faculty now meet outside once a week. Salerno has been alerting students about programs and lectures at other institutions being offered online, and students will be able to attend the annual Society for Advancement of Chicanos, Hispanics, and Native Americans in Science conference virtually this year. One faculty member started a “science café” at which a different science faculty member talks about their research each week. Her institution has also created mentoring triangles—a faculty member, paid senior student mentors, and the student—for its STEM scholars, who are first generation students of color interested in STEM. Salerno noted that her institution has an intentional focus on centering attention on students who have been traditionally underrepresented and underserved in STEM.
Luis Dominguez, Jr., a Computer Science student at the University of Houston (Downtown) noted that faculty advisors for the local student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery continued holding meetings virtually throughout the summer of 2020, which proved crucial for the stability of this student organization. One activity was a workshop series designed to prepare students to participate in conferences. In collaboration with the Computing Alliance of Hispanic-Serving Institutions, the club hosted workshops on resume writing, abstract writing, and writing personal statements for graduate school, with attendance ranging from 30 to 50 students. The main driver of student engagement was the sharing by student leaders of their past experiences with conferences and internships.
Megan Eberhardt-Alstot from California State University, Channel Islands, said that her institution had previously developed a five-module tutorial for online learning to help familiarize students with the technological aspects of online learning, accessing resources on campus, time management skills, self-efficacy, and the growth mindset required for being successful in the
online learning environment.3 Over the summer, faculty participated in a program on how to be an important connection for students and help them learn in a virtual environment.
Courtney Williams from Dillard University said his institution held 3 weeks of online sessions prior to bringing students back to campus, as well as a separate parent orientation. These sessions enabled students to meet with campus stakeholders (including the school’s president) before starting classes. He said that a major part of orientation was introducing the students to the essential technologies on campus. While they worked to introduce students to other members of their cohort and to various student leaders, in retrospect this was less important than the other components of the orientation because he found that students did not remember the people they met virtually over the summer.
Mark Canada from Indiana University Kokomo said his school ran a virtual orientation program that included two 1-hour sessions with information technology staff to help students establish accounts in the university’s system and access online classes. Over the summer, faculty ambassadors reached out to students individually, helping to increase student retention despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Students responded enthusiastically to the information they received and valued the one-on-one time they had with faculty and their advisors.
Regarding the flexibility that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced institutions, faculty, and students to adopt, Williams said that he has learned to be more flexible, which will help him cope with the unpredictability of how higher education will change going forward. Canada agreed with Williams that flexibility is essential in these times. Eberhardt-Alstot recounted something that she had heard, which was that flexibility stands at the center of a pedagogy of equity. Her hope was that institutions of higher learning would continue being flexible in terms of how they offer classes, given that learning science has shown that in-person learning is not always the best mode of instruction for every student.4 Flexibility with intentionality could enable students to better match learning styles with how material is presented to them.
Eberhardt-Alstot also spoke about learning design and how she works one-on-one with faculty to help them translate their learning objectives into an effective course design. The ideal outcome is a course that allows faculty members to teach and engage in the manner that suits them while also considering the needs of the learner. Faculty members also work with instructional technologists who are helping them to master the online aspects of instruction and with student assistants who provide them with the student perspective on a given course.
When asked how their institutions assess whether the programs they are offering are having an effect on student learning, Williams said that his institution works with student organizations to get their feedback and uses post-event satisfaction surveys to identify what is working and what is not working in its online offerings. Canada said that the virtual orientations were deemed successful because when using this approach, a greater number of students were registered successfully than when registration was done in person. Surveys also confirmed that virtual orientations went over well with the students. Eberhardt-Alstot said that 92 percent of the
3 Additional information on this program is available at https://www.csuci.edu/tli/online-blended/learningonline-101.htm.
4 Bailey, A., Vaduganathan, N., Henry, T., Laverdiere, R., and Pugliese, L. (2018). Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies from Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges. Boston, MA: Boston Consulting Group. Cavanaugh, J., and Jacquemin, S.J. (2015). Large sample comparison of grade-based student learning outcomes in online vs. face-to-face courses. Online Learning 19(2). https://olj.onlinelearningconsortium.org/index.php/olj/article/view/454.
students reported that the online modules increased their confidence about learning online, and over three-quarters of the students said that they would recommend the online course to a peer. Her institution has shared its introduction to online learning course with nearly 50 institutions5.
After a workshop participant commented that online learning is not as effective as in-person learning, Eberhardt-Alstot replied that it depends on whether effectiveness refers to grades, information retention, or degree completion. If a student makes it all the way to graduation, for example, that can change an entire family’s trajectory. In fact, her Hispanic-serving institution, which has a mostly first-generation student body, has found that the ability to take classes online is important for these students and enables them to persist with their studies until graduation.
Sheryl Burgstahler from the University of Washington discussed how to create an online course that is inclusive for students with disabilities. She recommended using principles of universal design when creating courses, whether for in-person or online learning. Her literature review identified nine tips for designing Web pages, documents, and videos for students with disabilities and 11 tips for instructional methods.6 These tips stress that institutions need to provide multiple ways for students to learn, demonstrate what they have learned, and engage with the course while also ensuring that each of these strategies is accessible to students with a variety of disabilities.
Laureen Campana from Columbia College said that before the COVID-19 pandemic, she and her colleagues were working to reach students to help them address their mental, physical, and social health issues (e.g., food and housing security, economic equity, technology equity). By April 2020, California’s community colleges had quickly transitioned to conducting student mental health appointments virtually, but students did not participate as expected, partly because of limitations in technology. One response was to create a new type of program called Wellness Central that could be more easily accessed via a link embedded on the student dashboard. This website was created using universal design principles, and it contains information requested by the students on subjects such as housing, food support, and mindfulness.
Sara Goldrick-Rab from Temple University explained that over the past 5 years, she and her colleagues have collected data from students attending community colleges or public universities nationwide about safety, housing insecurity, and job insecurity. Of the 38,000-plus students who responded to the surveys, 58 percent reported having one or more forms of basic needs insecurity, while 41 percent of 4-year students and 26 percent of 2-year students experienced housing insecurity and nearly as many experienced food insecurity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, housing insecurity was affecting students living both on-campus and off; students who lost jobs or had their hours reduced were facing evictions for nonpayment of rent. Currently, Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues are focused on helping institutions and policy makers as they try to support these students with emergency cash assistance and support to help them apply for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. They are also seeking to repurpose research dollars to provide work-study jobs that can be performed remotely. Goldrick-Rab noted that it is important for institutions to ask students how they are doing, something she
5 Further information about orienting to online learning is available at https://er.educause.edu/articles/2020/5/orienting-students-to-online-learning-a-must-for-student-success.
6 The tips are available at http://www.us.edu/doit/20-tips-teaching-accessible-online-course.
sees happening more during the COVID-19 pandemic. She now conducts a welcome survey to gather information about her students that she feels will enable her to be a better mentor and teacher for them.
Kamau Bobb from the Georgia Institute of Technology said that not just Black students or those from other minority groups have experienced trauma because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning the nation is confronting. He emphasized that there are currently student populations, primarily from educationally isolated and racially segregated communities,7 that seem to have vanished from educational tracking systems during the COVID-19 pandemic as a result of technology or socioeconomic inequities. He explained that addressing these issues will require creative solutions.
In the session’s closing remarks, Bonnie Peters from the California Virtual Campus’s Online Education Initiative noted the importance of equity and said that there are two aspects to equity: equitable access to the technologies needed to participate in online learning and the delivery of services online in a way that communicates effectively with all students, whether synchronously or asynchronously. California’s community colleges use their online student hub to provide access to services that can support their students dealing with issues related to admissions, financial aid, and new student orientation. These schools also use their online hubs to deliver follow-up services such as counseling, advising, library services, and other support services, including mental and physical health services, food pantries, and housing assistance. These student hubs and their resources have also been integrated into the learning management systems of many universities and colleges.
7 For example, in Atlanta, public schools are extremely segregated. Almost 100% of the White students at Atlanta public high schools go to only 3 of the 11 schools, according to Bobb.