PODCAST: In Conversation with Dean Kevin Deluzio on the challenges of the pandemic

Posted on April 23, 2020

Dean Kevin Deluzio speaks about the challenges that the pandemic is bringing to the faculty and how students, staff, faculty, and alumni are coming together to keep learning, exploring, and creating for a better world.

  • Today, it's a pleasure to speak with Dean Kevin Deluzio about the challenges that the pandemic is bringing to the faculty and how students, staff, faculty and alumni are coming together to keep learning, exploring, and creating for a better world. Welcome to the podcast, Kevin.

    Hey Nanci, I'm glad to be here.

    So the pandemic has changed things for a lot of people and around the world and so many different ways. I like to start by asking you how it's impacted the students here.

    Oh man. The students, massively so. They're dealing with this pandemic and its effect on their lives, on their loved ones and their families, friends. But their lives as students has been completely upended by this whole pandemic; a situation where in one day they were going about their classes and then all of a sudden that same day told, by the way, there's no more term. The rest of the term will be taught remotely. What did that mean? Where were they going to be? What about their whole, the rest of their semester. So much uncertainty and they'd been dealing with that ever since.

    One of the great strengths of Queens University and Queens Engineering is the sense of community. That tight bond, the students have that aspect that they, you know, you can see them out my window. I can see the GPAs, the leather jackets, engineering jackets, moving across campus, together. And I can tell you that right now as well, this is a very lonely place without the students.

    And I'm sure the students are missing that as well. That sense of community and support that they have, that is the key to them getting through a program that is as challenging as engineering is.

    Yeah, absolutely. They are used to working in groups.

    Totally. The engineering buildings are usually abuzz with students working together, solving problems, helping each other and all that social engagement that comes through that. I have to think that that's one of the big challenges our students are dealing with right now. That sense of a separation.

    Absolutely. So how are they learning right now? Because the classes and exams continue, right?

    Yes, yes. We had a week to prepare to move all of the entire engineering program remotely and the students had kind of a week to prepare themselves as well for what that would be. We tried to communicate what that would look like and the first thing we did is we established that, you know, this is going to be a very different end of term than they expected.

    So classes, the syllabus, the expectations, in some sense parts of the curriculum were deleted or removed or changed to make up for the fact that we had one last week to deliver the material and then we're delivering it in a very different format.

    You know, Queens engineering, we have this fantastic online bachelor of technology for mining program. It's an online program, it's best-in-class. So we know what best-in-class online programming is. We knew that we couldn't do that for all of our engineering programs within a week. So compromises were made, changes were made, and the adjustments were made in terms of how to deliver the most critical content to really focus on the learning objectives and the students had to learn all different ways of interacting with each other and the professors.

    There were zoom classrooms that were enabled. We use Microsoft Teams – so a lot of digital platforms that we used to get the same kinds of learning engagements that really could enhance the experience given that we were remote. And some of these online platforms, of course, the students are more adept and used to using than perhaps some of our professors.

    And I understand too that your IT team developed, along with AppsAnywhere so that students could download the programs they are used to using, that they also can actually connect into the computer labs here.

    Yes, it was great because of course students went back to the variety of situations, which our students found themselves in as they returned to their homes across the country – indeed across the globe – where not everyone had excellent internet access. Not everyone had access to good computing technology. So we scrambled very quickly to respond to those students as we could to say what can we do?

    And one of the most creative solutions was just that we have this plaza of computing resources and the IT team did some changes to them to allow students to be able to connect to them and use those computers. I've heard statistics like three out of four students were able to engage with those and use those resources to help them study. As you can appreciate, engineering is very technical, so having those technical resources, not just the software but actually the tools themselves, that helped in a great deal. It was very good to see the innovation amongst our staff and our faculty to create solutions to the problems in real time.

    You know, I think that must reduce a lot of stress for the students as well, because if they're using everything just like they would use it here, it's that sense of comfort, right?

    That's true. They were actually able to, you know, and in a sense be virtually present. But I think you touched on that uncertainty and I think this was one of the biggest things that I saw with our students. You know, they were engaged, they all want to learn. They wanted to figure this out. And as we were going through those first few days of planning, the emails and the communications that I had from them – that you could feel and hear the stress in them: “What's going to happen?” …. “I don't have … I'm in a one bedroom apartment with the family,” or, “I'm in this situation,” or “I'm in this situation, where I don't think I can do what was being done.” There was so many questions and you know, once the plan unfolded and once the professors started engaging with the students about both the plan and sometimes revising the plan, you could almost feel the level of anxiety in the communications that came back from the students. And I think that was a great learning for us in terms of how to provide information and how to get that information to students when our normal modes aren't there.

    Yeah. What about faculty and staff? It's been a switch for them as well.

    You know, I really feel for our faculty and staff right now, and we're almost at the end of our exam period right now, and I'm sure many of them are looking toward that finish line, like a marathon runner that has been running well past their best distance. The staff and faculty were in situations where they are putting together their remaining courses, where they were teaching, where they were doing their work in non-optimal positions, where they are also caring for their families, where they were dealing again with the stress and anxiety of this pandemic while trying to do their regular job.

    I'm so proud of the faculty and the staff in terms of how they dug deep and were creative and were committed to delivering the best educational experience they could. So you heard all kinds of examples where, “Okay, I can't do this, but I can do this.” And I heard this at the end of classes where faculty members were saying, “You know, I was really worried about this, but there are some things that I learned about teaching this way that will stick with me as I go forward in my teaching career.” And that was really surprising. I didn't expect that.

    Yeah, that's interesting.

    And I think that we got through, you know, to the staff about how they needed to support students in a different way. You know we have a massive machine here that operates to support student learning and it was really interesting to see how again the staff rose to those challenges as well.

    I also want to talk a little bit about some of the work that's going on outside of learning. I understand that there have been faculty and staff and students working together to help deal with some of the problems in this pandemic.

    So there's some fantastic examples. We train a whole group of problem solvers here. Engineers are essentially problem solvers. We look to design solutions for problems that meet the needs of everyday society, and here is a problem and it’s a problem that is so massively complex, that right away the engineers and students and again, faculty, worked together look for solutions.

    This code ventilator challenge is a fantastic example that was out of Montreal and they issued a global challenge to come up with a cheap, reliable ventilator that could be used in almost any situation around the world with local supplies. And so a group of engineers and students and faculty here got together and in incredibly short order, came up with a concept design, built a prototype, tested the prototype.

    And this is again a strength of the community because in that team, we had people from across the Faculty of Engineering, but not just that – we had people from Health Sciences basically across the university coming together, working for a solution. There are other examples as well in our community where students were developing using 3D printers to develop prototypes for personal protective equipment. We have alumni of ours who have businesses that responded to those needs. There's so many aspects of this challenge that engineers are willing and perfectly competent to provide solutions for.

    Not that every problem needs a technological solution. This is one where technology and technological solutions, and engineering solutions can play a real role in providing rapid response testing that we need, the whole engineering problems of supply chain management that are going on right now. There are a variety of ways that I think our students and our faculty are looking to see how can we contribute towards the solution and how can we make this world a bit better.

    Yeah. I think, you know, for students that doesn't get more real life than this does it?

    Yes. I'm thinking there were so many examples where it has been said, we're all in this together and this is truly an issue that has captured the globe's attention in terms of being part of this, and it's affecting everybody again, individually in real, substantial ways.

    So how are you keeping in touch with everyone?

    My life is a constant Zoom meeting. You know, we've done a couple of town halls in the faculty and they've had incredibly good attendance. It seems people are really hungering for that connection in spite of this social or physical separation that is going on. And you know, one of the early things I did trying to reach out to the students was, we'd been updating frequently asked questions, and I had been sending emails and everything.

    And at one point, I had decided to record a video message, because I thought it was another way to connect with the students more personally. I hope they got that. But I felt a sense of connection to the students because as I was delivering that message, I was imagining them in the buildings around campus, and on campus itself. So we're trying a variety of formats to connect with the students.

    Some of the instructors have shared with me that in large classes they were able to connect with the students more intimately during this time then when they're on campus. So there's this real sense of connection that, that some of the instructors got, even though we're teaching remotely.

    And how do you feel about the future, I imagine Queens is doing ongoing planning for various scenarios.

    Yes. Our focus is to get to the end of exam period, get over that finish line. Most of our attention is focused on the right here and now, so the goal is to get through that and see where we are. We know it's hard to predict what will happen four months from now, even weeks from now. So we are planning just in case to develop the online or remote learning scenario for the fall, and I can see that we have enough time for that now.

    This is one of the beauties that we start planning now and thinking about that we can deliver a best-in-class remote learning experience for our students. So we have people looking into creative ways that we can deliver lab contents, or some technology to students where they are. We're looking at creative ways of doing assessments, creative ways of getting the students engaged.

    Of course. How do we build that sense of community if we're not here? We're using the resources of the faculty, staff, the instructors, to think about how can we do this best for our students, and I know our student leaders are engaged in these activities as well. You know, despite that, I think there will be things that we've learned based on these two weeks that will change how we deliver our academic programming into the future.

    It sounds like true engineers.

    Exactly. Find solutions to problems.

    Thank you for talking with us today, Kevin.

    Thank you very much. I really enjoyed this Nanci. Take care.