The Fall semester has required flexibility, creativity, and persistence
It’s hard to fathom that the fall semester is nearly complete. Many classrooms and offices remained dark. Fall sports were canceled. The Quad and Farinon Center were void of tables set up by student groups to recruit new members. Nearby, no throngs of students passed by the Marquis de Lafayette statue. Across the Lafayette community, creative workarounds flourished. Forced to pivot due to the COVID-19 pandemic—an event that has not only shaped our year but will undeniably shape the future—Pards from around the globe found ways to work collaboratively, demonstrate resourcefulness, and foster enthusiasm.
For faculty and students alike, maintaining the integrity of a Lafayette education has not been just about adapting to a virtual format, but about the tangible, touch-it, feel-it elements that bring the concepts presented during lectures to life.
“Something I believe in deeply is inclusive STEM. I wanted to make sure that my students felt like they belong and also that they could see themselves in the future,” says Wendy Hill, Rappolt Professor Emeritus of Neuroscience and visiting professor, who reached out to program alums to record short videos about their journeys to share with her intro class. “That’s the power of alumni voices in the classroom. It occurred to me that were it not for teaching remotely, I don’t know that I would have gone this route. It’s provided greater opportunity for project-based approaches in the classroom.”
Christian Lopez, assistant professor of computer science affiliated with mechanical engineering, asked students in his courses to film 60-second “ice breaker” videos and submit them a week before class began. The requirements included sharing their locations, doing something creative, and sharing an interesting fact about computer science. “Building community and engaging students can take on many forms during online classes,” Lopez shared.
Lauren Myers, associate professor of psychology, offered a flexible modular format that allowed students to participate in a hybrid and partially asynchronous course to better fit their personal schedules. The format includes options to engage with the material and with peers—including exercises in small groups and asynchronous engagement in written or video response. Acknowledging within her syllabus that “living, working, and learning remotely during a global pandemic is stressful and unusual,” Myers was most concerned about flexibility and access.
Michael McGuire, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, viewed remotely teaching his Intro to Geotechnical Engineering class as a unique opportunity. The lab component for the course is a pilot for a potential larger crowdsourcing project, funded by a National Science Foundation grant led by Mary Roth, Simon Cameron Long Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Laurie Caslake, professor of biology. The lab asks students to use the bacteria in soil samples where they live to cement the soils with calcium carbonate and to find out how much the strength of the soil is increased through this process.
“The remote setting is actually ideal once you get around the limitations in terms of the equipment that the students have. Students were really creative,” says McGuire. “I had a student hike up in the White Mountains to get sand at the top of Mount Lafayette, of all places. I’ve also had students getting soil from the Adirondack Mountains. So, we’ve got a smattering of soils from all over.”
The shoebox-sized at-home lab kit Roth, Caslake, and McGuire created and shipped to students includes different-sized metal meshes, pegboard, syringes, tubing, and 500-gram scales obtained at a fraction of the price than those normally found in classrooms, allowing the project to be
Redefining the at-home lab was also at the heart of Luis Schettino’s, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, lab kits that were sent to his Physiological Psychology 2 students. Schettino, along with Michelle Tomaszycki, assistant professor of psychology, put together kits containing a sheep’s brain (preserved without the use of toxic chemicals), gloves, bench paper, and modeling clay. The object of dissecting the brain at home was to impress on students the importance of brain architecture on the control of behavior—in particular, how complex behavior is controlled during human interactions.
“Professor Schettino designed the course to ensure our continued interest, and we’ve discussed the parts of the brain in relation to the way our brains develop and how it affects perception, emotion, cognition, and behavior,” says Maggie Ledwith ’22. “Performing a dissection on a sheep’s brain at home was not something I would have foreseen myself doing, but the psychology department and neuroscience program did a great job preparing us for the procedure and ensuring we had the resources to carry out the lab.”
Gabrielle Conard ’21 (mechanical engineering) is another student who has taken the notion of remote learning and turned it on its head. Working with Alex Brown, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, on a low-cost quadruped robot design, Conard, says Brown, “completely redesigned our low-cost robot platform to use a structural printed circuit board chassis with onboard 8-bit microcontroller, a connection for a Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized computer, plus integrated servo control and force sensing circuitry.” Together, they created three iterations of the quadruped robot.
Student-led organizations not only help students maintain a sense of direction and purpose during the time they’re working remotely, but they also provide them with a way to cultivate friendships with one another. This is especially important for first-years getting their first taste of college life.
Under normal circumstances, an involvement fair is an opportunity for thousands of college students to descend on one location and share their interests, experiences, and goals in a way that unites them in a group, with a purpose. This year was the first time the student-led event was held virtually, though it didn’t dampen the Lafayette spirit; more than 121 offices and organizations were involved, and more than 700 students logged on throughout the day.
“For doing it a ‘new’ way, it was a fantastic turnout,” said Vanessa Pearson, director of student involvement. “Some groups had really fun Zoom backgrounds. Others were playing trivia games. One had an a capella group that was actually singing. These breakout rooms were all about demonstrating the experience that students could expect with each club, and gave new students the opportunity to ask questions and get to know their peers.”
While nothing could replace the sensations of being physically present at LaFarm with like-minded peers, Benjamin R. Cohen, associate professor of engineering studies, and Lisa Miskelly, assistant director of food and farm, sought—and found—a solution that would come as close as possible to doing so.
The Food & Farm Studies Salon (FFSS) became a common online space where students, faculty, and staff could come together to keep up with issues related to food and farm studies. During weekly Zoom meetings, all participants shared interesting, relevant content and engaged in conversations about the material.
The group covered topics like food waste, farm labor, immigration, racial injustice, regenerative agriculture, community gardens, school food, food apartheid, and more.
“We started the salon to provide a consistent anchor and check-in, no matter where anyone was, and to keep working on the things we all found important while we were on campus,” Cohen says. “Students could consider how to do those things better in the future and to maybe do them back home.”
It’s a brave new world.
No, the Lafayette theater program isn’t preparing to perform the 1930s dystopian novel. Rather, when facing the challenge of staging physical performances virtually,the department embraced the digital experience as a curtain raiser for a wholenew landscape.
“The show must go on, and we are in this together,” said Suzanne Westfall, professor and department head, when she shared an ambitious fall schedule that included productions of The Summoning of Everyman, directed by Sarah Frankel ’21, Emma!: A Pop Musical, directed by associate professor Mary Jo Lodge, You are there! Native Americans at the first Thanksgiving, a radio broadcast directed by associate professor Michael O’Neill, and Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Elizabeth Gumula ’22. Virtual productions were either streamed live via Zoom or recorded and shared with a ticketed audience for free.
In addition, the department collected short plays and monologues for a production of Behind the Masks, about our experiences with Covid-19, and a series of lunchtime chats with alums who have been successful in the arts. They also co-sponsored, with Hollis Ashby of the Performance Series, evening screenings of National Theater Live shows and tours of famous museums—for the Lafayette community only—complete with intros and talkbacks with faculty.
“It’s an enormous learning curve. Because we are a theater department, we focus on the live experience, and the whole attraction up until now has been being in the room where it happens and being where the performers are,” Lodge said a week into her rehearsals. “We’re trying different strategies to try to figure out how best to connect with audiences, while dealing with the technical constraints. That has been the biggest challenge.”
One of the more challenging and rewarding aspects of handling virtual performances has been the audition process. For Gumula—who asked to direct her play for the Arts Society, Alpha Psi Omega (ΑΨΩ), the National Theatre Honor Society—this was especially true watching first-years audition in July before they’d had the chance to step foot on campus or become integrated into life at Lafayette.
“We had five freshmen who auditioned before they even started school. It’s a testament to them, and it’s been incredible watching them and seeing them make friends through this production. That’s what it’s all about,” says Gumula. “The theater program at Lafayette is about the community building, and it’s also theater people just itching to tell stories, perform, or create.”
With 12 hours and multiple time zones between them, pianist and instructor Holly Roadfeldt and her students who live in China are entirely in sync thanks to technology, empathy, and a little problem-solving.
“I’m the sort of person who always has to do new repertoire and wants a new way of looking at things. It was a great pedagogical challenge to go out, say, ‘I can make this work’ or ‘Well, if I can’t do this, then how do I achieve the same result or a similar result by doing something else?’,” Roadfeldt says of the challenges of teaching music lessons virtually. “Overall, teaching is problem-solving. Teaching is finding solutions. I tell the students when we’re in the studio that I can tell what they’re doing based on the sound they’re producing. Now, I may not be able to get all that from the sound, but I can tell by the physical action [on camera]. So, I’m just doing everything in reverse.”
Roadfeldt also notes that students taking lessons together enables them to see each other’s hands in real time on one screen. This allows them to not only make astute observations, but to react to each other’s playing.
“The observations that these kids have, at this point, would have taken me months to get to, and it’s happening because they can see it in real time. They’re also reacting with empathy and know when they’re making their classmates feel better about their playing.”
COVID-19 threw the playbook out the window. As a “new normal” rippled across college campuses and filtered into the world of athletics, a number of questions remained about how lack of practice, competition, and socialization would affect student-athletes. Sport is largely about routine, and like the rest of the Lafayette community, athletes practicing social distancing had to turn to technology to stay in touch with their teammates, coaches, athletic directors, trainers, and other key members of their support system.
Athletics director Sherryta Freeman’s coaching staff continues to find ways to facilitate a strong bond with their players, even for those teams that would have found themselves in the off-season during the fall. As they have adapted to what is no longer a “new” reality, the coaches are working to keep morale high and to offer their players the resources needed to get as much out of the athletics experience as possible.
“The coaches meet with all students one on one, or with the coaching staff, to get an individual sense of what’s happening—and that’s not just from an athletic standpoint. It’s ‘How’s everything at home?’ or ‘How are your classes?’ or ‘Do you feel supported?’” shares Freeman. “How are they responding to the remote environment? Is there anyone we can connect them with? We have a sports psychologist, Dr. Julie Amato, who meets with our teams and talks about how to stay motivated and connected in this virtual world, and how to stay in tune with their goals. Having the coaches and Dr. Amato keeping them engaged has been critical for us.”
“We’ve held Zoom meetings with our guys three times a week, which include ‘mindfulness Mondays’ with our sports psychologist, playbook-based content, and leadership training,” says Patrick Myers, men’s lacrosse head coach, whose team had 12 on-campus and 40 remote students. “In addition, we hold meetings with their positional coaches and a leadership council meeting, including guest speakers on Thursdays. We hit them from a lot of different angles. Each athlete also has a ‘leap family’ mentor, and we use breakout rooms so those athletes can update each other.”
The College is not overlooking that mental health is paramount at a time when 18- to 22-year-olds have to deal with an unknown future and find that their own identities are often tied to playing their sport.
“We have questionnaires that we send out, and we do get relative feedback from them so that we can kind of eyeball whether a person isn’t sleeping very well, or whether someone is a little bit more stressed. We get that back daily, which is helpful,” shares Jennifer Stone, field hockey head coach, whose team meets remotely twice a week, including one cultural or leadership meeting. “Because of time sensitivity and not even knowing if we’re going to play in the spring, we’re preparing them, but we’re not burning them out. We’re keeping them engaged and wanting more, and for me that’s been an important part of our group.”
Student-athletes use the CoachMePlus app to stay on track with their weekly workouts, going through routines set up by their strength and conditioning coaches. Though the workouts are not mandatory, the players are part of accountability groups that hold each other to a certain set of standards—including keeping each other in line.
“Something that’s unique to men’s soccer is that there are a lot of amateur men’s leagues, so 25 of our 28 guys are playing on an active team where they’re practicing or playing four to five times a week with these outside teams. I’m not losing sleep over it because I know my guys are training a lot,” shares Dennis Bohn, men’s soccer head coach. “One of our big pieces is having a full-time nutritionist, who since March has been a huge part of our programming and has helped the guys deal with their diets and nutrition no matter where they are.”
Mike Summers, assistant vice president of the Gateway Career Center and Yusuf Dahl, Bradberry Dyer III ’64 director for innovation and entrepreneurship of the Dyer Center, have a dream job in common: helping students discover what their professional goals are, and then helping to make those goals a reality. But in a world where recruitment and growing social entrepreneurship rely on face-to-face connections, can technology fill that gap?
“The question was, How can we deliver as close to an in-person career fair experience for our students and our employers on a platform that wasn’t just chatbot features, wasn’t one-dimensional, and was interactive?” says Summers. “We looked at six different platforms, and the one that stood out was vFairs because it was interactive and delivered a ‘step-up’ experience for all users.”
The vFairs technology is designed to look and feel like you’re actually in a three-dimensional space. There’s a virtual lobby, information desk, auditorium, exhibit hall, employer booths, and functionality for group or private chat between employers and students. For the Career Fair held Oct. 7, students also were able to “see” each other “walking around” the event in real time. There was also technology assistance available on the spot for anyone having trouble navigating the platform.
When it comes to entrepreneurship, says Dahl, “it comes down to three things—who you are, what you know, and who you know.”
This has held true for students even as they’ve completed Dyer Center’s courses, programming, and competitions from home or wherever they’re making a virtual connection. Dahl has wanted them to remain focused on what they know and passionate about the problems they’re trying to solve, while at the same time considering the connections they could be making and fostering. He also believes projects they’re trying to solve should be tied to tangible outcomes.
To that end, one of the projects the Dyer Center has been pursuing is working with the Greater Easton Development Partnership’s entrepreneur in residence, Martin Johnson, on the “Buy Easton” project, which will build teams to help attract walk-in customers to stores and restaurants in Easton throughout the holiday season. The effort is intended to foster more purchases by members of the Lafayette community in businesses hit hard by COVID-19.
“Everything has to be consequential work or we’re not interested in it. There has to be some community impact.”