Like most seniors in forest engineering, Ethan Harris had a plan for his capstone project. On Starker Forests land in the Oregon Coast Range, he would survey a stand, appraise its timber value, develop a harvest plan and coordinate with mills and truckers.
But when stay-at-home and social distancing orders came down from the governor’s office in March, Harris had to change course. Timber cruises and other survey work were cancelled. Instead of meeting in person to pore over maps and review details, the project team met virtually through Zoom.
Harris’ most significant hurdle, he says, was to get over his dismay with the setback. Woodam Chung, Stewart Professor of Forest Operations, helped Harris to find available data and complete the project.
Another senior, Wade Christensen, had a similar experience for his capstone. Help arrived in the form of remotely sensed LIDAR data from a leading expert in the field, Bogdan Strimbu, assistant professor in Forest Engineering, Resources and Management. Allowing for differences between direct observation and point clouds, Christensen was able to estimate timber volumes and complete his work.
Both Harris and Christensen graduated on time, but they are only two examples of the stressful scramble brought on by pandemic restrictions last spring. Adjusting capstone projects, jumping into remote classes, recalibrating internships, filling gaps in students’ resources — all fell to faculty, advisors and support staff.
What they accomplished, says Christensen, “was monumental.”
For Nicole Kent, Manager of Advising & Academic Relations for the College of Forestry, the shift became all consuming. She and her team make sure that the college’s nearly 1,000 undergraduates get the courses and experiences they need. They also conduct student orientations and other events.
Only about half of those students are on the Corvallis campus. Others work at OSU Cascades in Bend, at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande or through Ecampus. “We were already doing a lot of remote teaching. That gave the college a head start in adjusting to the pandemic,” says Kent.
Most students in Corvallis are there because they want to learn in person — in the forest, on field trips, in labs, face to face. When restrictions were imposed in March, students saw internships and other work-experience opportunities evaporate. Some courses were cancelled and others shifted to the computer screen.
Although some students had already completed their internships, others had planned to do so during the spring term. “The absence of those experiences was challenging for some,” Kent adds.
Nevertheless, the College of Forestry prides itself on producing work-ready graduates, so advisors and faculty shifted gears to find alternatives. They determined what courses would provide the required learning outcomes and kept students on the path to graduation.
“I can’t say enough about how wonderful the Student Services team is and how hard they have worked,” says Kent. “They were all at home working remotely. They stepped up to show such great care and compassion for our students.”
Those efforts included finding financial help when income had suddenly dried up. The OSU Foundation led an effort that saw over 3,000 donors contribute over $1-million for Beavers Care, an initiative to make a difference for OSU students, faculty and staff in urgent need of emergency support. College staff navigated the federal CARES Act to determine who was eligible for assistance and who was not. Staff also identified additional university resources to help fill gaps in their personal lives, such as access to groceries and medications.
Staff in the college’s IT office made extraordinary efforts to make sure all students had access to computers and the internet at home. During the same weeks, the college was moving into the new Peavy Forest Science Center building. IT was assisting students with Zoom meeting software, loaner computers and off-campus access to computer labs.
“All the work they were doing behind the scenes made a huge difference,” says Kent.
Faculty members also stepped up to help each other. For example, David Stemper, senior instructor in Forest Ecosystems and Society, sent an invitation to all faculty in March offering to assist people who were new to online teaching. He has been teaching remote courses for the college since 2008.
Among the challenges of teaching in a remote environment, he says, are managing discussions, monitoring student performance and grading. “The biggest challenge is that, since you don’t face students one on one, you have to put in extra effort to add a personal, thoughtful touch to all correspondence.”
Stemper says a handful of people responded to his offer. One was a simple observation from Bruce Shindler, OSU professor emeritus whose environmental interpretation course provided Stemper with his first college teaching experience in 2001. “He told me that ‘you and people like you are why I enjoy working for the College of Forestry,” says Stemper.
Throughout spring term, OSU and the college communicated with students, sending updates about available resources and helping people who were struggling with isolation. “It sounds trite,” says Stemper, “but it revealed this strong learning community that we all have. It showed a lot of collective character on the part of OSU.”
A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Focus on Forestry, the alumni magazine of the Oregon State University College of Forestry.