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Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight: Graduate students find innovative ways to continue educating despite COVID-19 related challenges

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By Emily Carman on December 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on education, affecting students, teachers and other faculty members. The cancellation of in-person classes and the introduction of virtual learning has posed many challenges to those working in the field. However, the pandemic has also allowed the opportunity to expand and innovate the ways we educate and learn.

Medha Dalal, Caitlin Knox and Melissa Cotsona were each faced with COVID-19 related challenges with regards to education. Their research projects and personal lives were each affected by the cancellation of in-person classes and events. Yet, they each innovated and found ways to continue educating despite the challenges. 

In October, the Graduate College asked graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to share the challenges they have faced as a result of the pandemic and the innovative ways they overcame those challenges. Now, we are highlighting several of these innovative solutions to create a resource that students, fellows and faculty can turn to for inspiration as COVID-19 continues to impact research.

Providing hands-on engineering experience to highschool counselors 

Medha Dalal is a postdoctoral scholar studying engineering education at ASU’s Polytechnic school. 

As part of her research project, Dalal was creating and implementing a national professional development program for high school guidance counselors in order to provide them with hands-on engineering experience. 

“Counselors play a pivotal role in influencing students’ STEM career related education pathways, particularly for female and under-represented minority students,” Dalal wrote. “This study aimed to demystify and democratize engineering education by providing counselors with hands-on engineering design experiences over a two-day workshop at the university.”

Dalal had several interactive, collaborative and goal-driven activities planned for the workshop such as:

  1. Design a shoe with specific goals and uncover hidden connections of engineering to a variety of disciplines. 

  2. Collaboratively design and test a robotic arm to pick up a plastic cup and learn about engineering-centric skills, such as problem solving, design thinking, creativity, and collaboration that cross-cut a broad range of fields.

  3. Learn about implicit biases, stereotypes, and negative stereotype threats concerning engineering education. 

  4. Learn about engineering grand challenges for the sustainable world and engage in the collaborative design of a shelter and a personal portable water filter. 

  5. Learn about local and national engineering education outreach activities.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced Dalal to change these plans as the in-person workshop was cancelled due to travel restrictions and safety concerns. 

Rather than cancelling the workshop entirely when faced with COVID-19 related challenges, Dalal worked quickly to create a virtual workshop that would still deliver a hands-on experience. 

Dalal put together mail-in engineering kits, with design materials and instructions included, and shipped them to participating counselors. The two-day on-site workshop was converted to a 4-week long hybrid workshop, with multiple synchronous and asynchronous online activities. And, a Canvas course was created as a one-stop resource for the participants.

“Every week, the participants were asked to design one artifact from the kit involving their family. Participants would then post pictures, movies, and reflection documents for the activity on Canvas for peers to view and comment,” Dalal explained. “This was followed by weekly synchronous sessions that ranged in activities from group discussions around challenges faced and insights gained, to informative sessions on engineering stereotypes and engineering pathways and outreach activities for students.” 

When the virtual workshop concluded, survey and focus group data, as well as reflection letters shared by participants, indicated that the hybrid workshop was well-received.

Because of her innovation in creating a virtual, hands-on workshop, Dalal was awarded a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Spotlight Grant from the Graduate College. 

Implementing homeschool curriculum while running a business

Caitlin Knox is running a small business while working towards her masters in business administration. She is also a mother to two young children.

Knox has been working remotely for the past 8 years and has been attending school online, so COVID-19 restrictions primarily impacted her children. 

“My oldest child is a rising 2nd grader, and has been out of school since March. Additionally, the daycare my younger son attended was closed permanently in April,” Knox explained. “The challenge, therefore, was incorporating care for my children during the day into my schedule.”

Concerned for her children’s safety and education, Knox decided to find another schooling option. 

“We found a homeschool curriculum and haven't looked back,” she wrote.

Knox found many opportunities and enriching activities outside of traditional schooling that added to her childrens’ education.

“My daughter has attended city council meetings, been exposed to the state legislature and has flourished with her own increased autonomy to work through her tasks as she sees fit,” Knox wrote. “She is 8 and has more motivation than I have ever seen!”

Knox said that COVID-19 provided her an opportunity to reconsider the role she plays in her childrens’ education. 

Though it took some getting used to, “once we established a good flow, the burden of facilitating child care during the day was removed,” Knox said.

Knox was also awarded a $100 Knowledge Mobilization Grant for her innovative solution to the challenges she faced due to COVID-19.  

Providing a virtual learning environment for special education students

Melissa Cotsona is working towards masters degrees in both special education and elementary education. 

Cotsona is extremely passionate about special education and has been researching ways to better teach, serve and support students with different learning needs.  

“All students can learn, we just have to find the right way to support them,” she wrote. “Through modification and accommodations we can serve students in the classroom to equip them to be successful learners.”

For Cotsona, the hardest challenge posed by COVID-19 has been the limitation of in-person interaction with her students.

Since she can not go into the classroom, Cotsona has been using online learning tools such as WebEx and Google Slides to teach her students virtually.

However, Cotsona has faced challenges keeping her students connected and engaged in a virtual learning environment.

“There are no incentives for the students to join beyond learning, so we have to hook them early on in the lesson,” she explained. “We as educators have to make them want to come back through engaging lesson plans that captivate our audience.”

To face this challenge, Cotsona asks herself two questions every day while she is lesson planning;  What will make this student log back on when they are disconnected 10 minutes into the lesson? How can we immediately hook the audience?

“Adapting the content during the lesson has become a critical part of our planning process. We are constantly adding in modifications for ELLs, a younger audience and an older audience of students with special needs,” Cotsona wrote. “We have to be quick on our feet and find creative ways to scaffold reading content to students depending on their needs.”