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Faculty discover ways for research to thrive during the pandemic

Faculty discover ways for research to thrive during the pandemic
How Warner School Faculty Are Navigating Scholarship in the Age of COVID-19

When COVID-19 closed down campuses in early 2020, universities across the country had to navigate the many unforeseen interruptions the pandemic inflicted upon academic life. But during a time of uncertainty and disruptions, faculty at the University of Rochester's Warner School of Education have continued to successfully press on and even rise to the challenge of innovating their research through the pandemic.
Warner School faculty members Silvia Sörensen, PhD, associate professor; Jeffrey Choppin, PhD, professor and chair of teaching & curriculum; and Samantha Daley, EdD, assistant professor, share how the pandemic has affected their research agendas, how they have had to adjust their initial plans and courses of action, how their research has shaped out, and challenges and opportunities encountered along the way.
Revising Plans
Silvia Sörensen, Counseling & Human Development

Sörensen launched REBUILD-VL, which stands for Resilience-Building Intervention to prevent Late-life Depression with Vision Loss (REBUILD), over five years ago. Offered by the University of Rochester and the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired (ABVI), the project seeks to reduce the psychological effects of vision loss with the help of a grant from the Greater Rochester Health Foundation. Sörensen initially envisioned administering the project’s work—vision education groups, one-on-one resilience building coaching sessions, and interview-based surveys—in person for the duration of the program, which has since included 27 cohorts of about 250 participants, age 55 and older, with vision loss that cannot be corrected. 

“The biggest issue for us with COVID is that we’re serving older adults who are high risk,” explains Sörensen, “and our program was predicated on doing the work face to face. We had to move all of that to either phone or Zoom, so that’s been somewhat challenging.” 
Lady working on a computerBecause of COVID-19, Sörensen’s team could not run the in-person support and research study that they were planning to run last spring, so they converted a lot of the group activities into videos because the team relies on having qualified experts talk about different aspects of how to cope with vision loss. The first video features an ophthalmologist who explains how the eye works, what diseases impact vision, and ways to keep eyes healthy. The second shares adaptations that can be done at home, like adding bump dots to kitchen appliances, to help manage poor vision. The third video is about orientation and mobility and features a specialist who talks about how to orient oneself in a room as well as navigate public transportation and ask for directions when traveling. The last video, on the emotional aspect of vision loss, will be live so that participants can actively engage and interact together during the session. 
For the research staff conducting the interview-based surveys, the challenge was figuring out how to transition data collection from paper to digital while still providing participants with cues—or answer cards, as they refer to them, that include answer options—when collecting and capturing data electronically. What was previously done in person with hardcopies is now done with the interviewer sitting in front of a computer screen talking to the participant either by Zoom or by phone and entering the data into REDCap, a web-based application for capturing and managing research and clinical study data electronically. 
One lesson that Sörensen learned throughout this time is that moving everything online takes much longer than one would expect. “You approach this thinking that we can just do this electronically, but there are different barriers that you don’t think about, and it’s a lot to manage,” she explains. “Similar to moving your classes online, it seems like it shouldn’t be hard, but ends up requiring more steps, like altering the syllabus, writing modules, and what not. With research, I think it’s the same, but there are all these little steps that are added.”
They now have a process in place that is working for mostly everyone involved, especially the older adults, who Sörensen says have adapted quite well in terms of the program. Social isolation for everyone, she says, has been really hard this year, so being able to still connect virtually has been helpful.
“Actually, I could see some of our older adults struggling initially with the technology, but there’s also this sense of ‘oh I can do this’ that I am seeing from them,” she explains. “I think the bigger the impairment and the more alone people are, the harder it is to adjust.” 
Transitioning to online capabilities for mental health assistance, resiliency support/coaching, and interviews measuring for depression, anxiety, and personality traits, coupled with the technical support of getting everyone online, has enabled REBUILD-VL to continue supporting the well-being of and researching the needs, exacerbated by the pandemic, among vulnerable older adults. 
From In-Person to Online Research—and Back Again
Samantha Daley, Teaching & Curriculum; Counseling & Human Development; Educational Leadership

Similarly, Daley, who leads two National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded projects, both focused on youth with learning disabilities, has had to adjust her research to the COVID-19 times. Alterations have been made to her NSF-funded study on the motivational experiences of science museum visitors with disabilities.

Teens at the science museumInitially hoping to be entirely in person, Daley has had to switch gears for the piloting phase of her research study, which aims to generate new insights into the ways in which informal STEM education practitioners can facilitate the inclusion of adolescents with disabilities and design exhibits and programs to be inclusive of all people. Prior to the project beginning in October 2020, Daley and her research team had a few months to develop the measures and determine a protocol for virtual piloting. This preparation has allowed her team to successfully work with a small group of youth this past fall prior to the first wave of data collection taking place this spring and summer in person at the Museum of Science, Boston (MOS) and Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC).

 “It actually has worked out really well—we can get kids from anywhere to do this, and we can get a sense of their experiences of virtual spaces, which we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” Daley explains of the unexpected advantage to shifting to remote. “We’re not doing large scale data collection with these virtual exhibits, but we’re able to get a sense of things during the virtual piloting.” 
Daley’s other NSF-funded project has undergone even more significant changes due to the disruptions caused by the pandemic. Through an NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, Daley is conducting a mixed-methods study of 80 middle school students and working with experienced science educators to better understand how the motivational beliefs of middle and high school students with learning disabilities influence whether they will pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields. 
The five-year project, which was awarded in 2018, has dramatically changed directions this past year when Daley’s team was planning to be in schools for a big data collection effort that included surveys and interviews. But schools shut down and then Daley had to transition to a full virtual study of kids’ experiences during remote and hybrid learning to be able to understand middle school students’ motivational and emotional experiences of learning science. 
“The most challenging part is trying to come up with an approach that is useful to participants and to our partners and remains true to the goals of the project, but not burdensome to families and schools,” she says. “We’ve been very sensitive about how to make adjustments that are going to be worth asking people to participate in research during this time, and that’s been a challenge.”
Now, in year three of her five-year study, Daley has created fully virtual online surveys that students take initially, followed up by shorter surveys every day for 10 consecutive school days to ascertain a sense of the daily dynamics of their learning experiences. They also give a better sense of what’s happening in the school day over two weeks. Researchers also added a parent survey, which they would not have had if they were in person, to hear from families about their experiences of their child’s learning over the school year and their household experiences with COVID-19. And, while the project is focused mainly on students with learning disabilities, Daley and her team also have broadened this project to include all students. The accommodations the team has made to the project, due to the pandemic, have helped to widen the parameters of the research in ways that make it more comprehensive and current. 
Both Daley and Sörensen say that they would be remiss if they didn’t give a shout-out to the Warner graduate students who have been working with them on the projects as research assistants. They not only helped to set up last year, but they have had to do all this iterating to figure out what to do, particularly since it has never been done before.  
“They have been awesome—totally flexible and problem-solving non-stop,” Daley says. “This kind of adjusting is needed in all research, but asking developing researchers to adjust to this degree was not something anyone would have expected.”   
Research as Usual 
Jeffrey Choppin, Teaching & Curriculum

Prior to the pandemic, Choppin, who is currently a principal investigator for two major NSF-funded projects focused on mathematics education, was accustomed to operating and collaborating in an online environment when it came to conducting research. His ERGO project, which ended six years ago, was done almost completely online in terms interviews, meetings, collecting and analyzing data across 90 teachers in 10 states. It was done in collaboration with teams from four higher education institutions. 
“I am very comfortable with it,” Choppin explains. “Actually, Zoom interviewing is way better than doing in person because I can just record it right there, I can access notes, I can type my notes, so that hasn’t been an issue because I’ve been doing it forever.” 
A $2.7 million NSF grant awarded to the University of Rochester in 2020 has allowed Choppin to continue this approach through a four-year project, titled “Synchronous Video-Based Development for Rural Mathematics Coaches”—also referred to as SyncOn for Coaches. The team, led by Choppin and Cynthia Callard, executive director of the Center for Professional Development and Education Reform at Warner; along with Julie Amador, a University of Idaho Coeur d’Alene faculty member, is studying and providing coaches in rural areas with access to high-quality professional development in mathematics. The coach participants take part in online courses, one-on-one interactions with coach mentors, and video club meetings where they review and analyze videos of their coaching. 
The pandemic, however, has caused a major delay in the SyncOn for Teachers project’s working conference, which was initially scheduled for the final year of the grant, now in a no-cost extension year. Initially scheduled to take place in Minneapolis in 2020, social justice protests and COVID-19 forced Choppin’s team to postpone the conference until summer 2021. “We put it out to our team, and there was consensus from all the participants to wait until we can do it in person,” says Choppin, who is now planning for a 2022 conference. 
Students working on mathChoppin’s work at East High School, which is also funded by a $2.5 million NSF grant awarded in 2020, has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. The research team, led by Choppin, Callard, and Shaun Nelms, superintendent at East, associate professor, and William & Sheila Konar Director of the Center for Urban Education Success at Warner; along with William Zahner, associate professor of mathematics at San Diego State University, looks at how to create and sustain a challenging mathematics program in high-need and high-poverty schools that could serve as a model to inform others through a four-year project, titled “Creating a Model for Sustainable Ambitious Mathematics Programs in High-Need Settings: A Researcher-Practitioner Collaboration.” Building from the University’s partnership with East High School that began in 2015, this NSF-funded project aims to explore in depth the sustained and successful mathematics reform efforts at East, an underserved secondary school in Rochester. These efforts have successfully led to increased student learning and achievement over the past five years.

The pandemic has forced a delay in conducting teacher observations and holding meetings while city schools have been fully online. It’s also impacted teacher recruitment, which he plans to resume once East returns to a full-time, in-person academic schedule in fall 2021. In the meantime, the team has focused their attention to other areas of their qualitative research, including the literature review, the collection and analysis of more than 4,000 documents, and the handful of retrospective interviews around major themes, that will allow them to get the ball rolling in terms of characterizing the ambitious mathematics program on paper and how it came to be at East.

While COVID-19 has pushed his research schedule back a bit and the research team has been collecting a limited set of data in the first year, relative to what they had planned, Choppin is optimistic that NSF will likely grant a no-cost extension that will allow them to extend their work a year to make up for some of the delayed work due to the pandemic. And he has had time to develop a separate set of questions to understand how COVID-19 and the move to online learning has impacted mathematics instruction the past year—an unexpected enhancement to his research that came out of the challenges COVID-19 posed to his research project. 

COVID ‘Silver Linings’

For many researchers, like Sörensen, Daley, and Choppin, COVID-19 has presented some research challenges that they have had to overcome, but it’s also provided opportunities to reflect on and rethink their current projects and future research plans and methods beyond the pandemic. 

“I think we have learned some benefits of online data collection that have actually been really helpful,” says Daley, noting that they have had some positive experiences and found that students have been remarkable on Zoom. “The kids have been really open and interested in talking, and the logistics have been great because we don’t have to worry about getting families to us, so I think we’ve realized the access that virtual data collection provides can be really beneficial. I’ll continue to think about that moving forward.”

According to Choppin, there has been an upside to what’s happening with COVID-19, which he did not anticipate originally. 

“At East, they have done really interesting things with the curriculum—and I’m hoping to get my hands on some of it—but more of it is just how they have made the instruction interactive,” says Choppin, who refers to the adaptations East has made to making its curriculum remote. “East has some interesting people, and I think they have been really creative about everything they have done.”

Choppin concludes with some advice for scholars who are just beginning to embark on the early research stages during the pandemic. “Just go for it,” he adds, “you’re going to find things that you wouldn’t otherwise find out. It’s going to be relevant, and you are in a really unique opportunity, so embrace it.”