UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The ways in which student engagement initiatives have changed as a result of the remote learning environment and the lessons learned that can be leveraged for future out-of-classroom experiences were discussed during the Board of Trustees Committee meeting on Outreach, Development and Community Relations today (Feb. 18).

Administrators from the Penn State Student Engagement Network and Student Affairs shared updates on the Remote Innovation Grant program, Engagement Academy projects, undergraduate research initiatives and Student Affairs programs.

The Penn State Student Engagement Network works to connect and empower students, enhance education, institution and scholarship for faculty and staff, and impact and improve communities.

“All students deserve the opportunity for meaningful engagement activities – whether virtual or in-person,” said Tracey Huston, vice president for Penn State Outreach. “The University will continue to improve and develop a variety of out-of-classroom initiatives that can improve our students’ academic growth and positively impact our communities.”

Innovation Grant program helps student grow, make connections

The University’s expansion of remote learning led to several new virtual student engagement experiences. The Remote Innovation Grant program created and organized a central engaged learning curriculum, including a required Canvas course (the University’s learning management system) and student partnership with faculty/staff ‘engagement coaches,’ to serve as guiderails for any student seeking an engaged learning experience.

Michael Zeman, director of the Student Engagement Network (SEN), said the Remote Innovation Grants help students seek enriching student engagement experiences, whether in-person or virtual.

“The grant program combines scale with rigor, thanks to the new Canvas course curriculum and engagement coaching model, and reshapes the pathway for engaged learning at Penn State,” he said. “The scholarship of any student engagement experience, including research, internships, organizational, travel, community-based, volunteer, etc., is now achievable, applicable and measurable.”

The Student Engagement Network’s Remote Innovation Grant program is designed to support expenses related to completing an experience in the spirit of remote or in-person living and learning. Undergraduate students from all Penn State campuses can apply, and students can receive either $1,000 or $2,000 in funding.

Quinn Deitrick, a mechanical engineering graduate who analyzed hummingbird flight as an undergraduate student, said the grant program allowed him to have a more eye-opening research experience, providing him a deeper appreciation of how research is a team effort.

“Because of the generosity of the SEN, I wasn’t as worried about being able to make payments and could focus on my future,” said Deitrick, who used the grant money to aid in housing and food expenses. “The grant allowed me to spend more time analyzing footage of hummingbird flight, giving me more research experience to shape my academic career. However, the best impact the grant had on me was the connections I made along the way.”

A total of $90,000 in grants have been awarded in the spring 2021 cycle. Projects must comply with federal, state, local and University policies related to COVID-19.

Furthering understanding of student engagement

The SEN Engagement Academy can help all faculty and staff develop collaborative partnerships among students and the University, resulting in transformative experiences that complement student engagement and serve the greater good. Faculty/staff apply to the academy with a proposal to deepen the campus-wide discourse, practice and recognition of engaged scholarship at the University. Selection to the academy can be for one- or two-year appointments.

Alan Rieck, associate vice president and associate dean for undergraduate education, said remote experiences have led faculty and staff within the Engagement Academy to develop previously unknown potential as they work to foster a greater student engagement experience for undergraduates.

“The faculty and staff within the Engagement Academy needed to shift their plans in terms of how they would complete their projects as a result of the remote requirements related to the pandemic,” he said. “The creativity of solutions while maintaining the integrity of their work demonstrated a flexibility that we had not tapped into previously.”

Faculty and staff who are interested in applying must advance knowledge about engaged scholarship at Penn State across the University; strengthen engaged scholarship courses and experiences and/or contribute to research on engaged scholarship that can lead to sustainable opportunities for faculty and students; cultivate faculty leadership for engaged scholarship; recognize and enable the contributions of engaged scholarship faculty; and participate in assessment of student engagement effectiveness in comparison to Student Engagement Network outcomes.

Developing undergraduate research opportunities

The new remote learning landscape for undergraduate research has allowed for a variety of successes and for new growth and connections with community entities, according to Rieck.

He said experiences that thrived in the remote environment must be incorporated with those that thrive in the in-person environment to offer students the richest engagement opportunities possible.

“We did not attempt to imitate the in-person experiences in a remote environment,” he said. “Instead, we intentionally sought to develop virtual experiences that offer unique advantages different than those we have for in-person experiences. They exist and are worthy of maintaining.”

Rieck said that although students might not have the range of experiences at their disposal, students have recognized the importance of the connections, relationships, skill development and networking that are a part of any engagement experience.

Increased accessibility 

The remote learning environment provided both engagement opportunities and challenges for students. Some found learning and engagement more possible while others found that their home environments caused feelings of anxiety and isolation, according to senior director of student engagement programs Barry Bram.

“There have been successes, such as our leadership and career development programming, which have seen higher attendance during the remote environment compared to when we had in-resident instruction,” said Bram, who said there also has been increased collaboration among Penn State campuses to offer programs to students at other campuses.

While remote engagement has been a good lesson for Student Affairs, Bram said the in-person student experience at Penn State is irreplaceable.

“Students crave the connections and sense of belonging that come from the kinds of in-person student engagement experiences that Penn State is known for,” he said.

Bram added that Student Affairs is now better prepared to serve students by having to expand the ways that it offered programs and services remotely.

The Student Engagement Network is a joint initiative between Undergraduate Education, Student Affairs, and Outreach and Online Education.

Source: How student engagement initiatives have adapted to the remote environment | Penn State University