For more than a year, “remote” has been a way of life for many members of the Penn State community.
For example, I taught my Penn State classes partially or fully remotely. (OK, Zoomer.) I even got to teach in the Bryce Jordan Center. It was an experience of a lifetime: standing at center court, hearing my voice echo through the arena, and seeing my lecture slides projected on the scoreboard. Hmm, I wonder if there is a nonapocalyptic scenario that would afford me the chance to teach in Beaver Stadium? But I digress.
One advantage of remote is that physical distance offers perspective. As an astronomer, I often think about our physical perspective in the universe. For example, our sun appears as a small orb in our sky that we can easily cover with an outstretched thumb. Its perceived smallness, despite the fact that a million Earths could fit inside the sun, in turn emphasizes Earth’s smallness and isolation. Our “pale blue dot” planet, as Carl Sagan described it, is “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.”
This issue of the Science Journal explores how being remote has impacted the Penn State community and how the college has helped students build connections with their instructors and one another. The first feature article describes instructional initiatives for faculty, a new mentoring program for first-year students from underrepresented groups who began their Penn State experience away from campus, and the unprecedented financial support from alumni and friends of the college that has assisted our students in need. Despite the necessary distancing we all endured, even COVID-19 couldn’t vanquish the spirit of collaboration and cooperation that propel our teaching and research missions.
Remote teaching surprisingly afforded some opportunities to connect more personally. I found myself proactively emailing my students more often to check on how they were doing. Students asked and answered more questions during class, they attended Zoom office hours, and they helped answer one another’s questions. In some ways the distance actually brought us together. I hope that is something we keep after the pandemic. Handshakes can stay gone forever, but I hope renewed human compassion stays. That wouldn’t be a bad souvenir from our “annus horribilis.”
Doing remote work or research isn’t anything new for many Penn State scientists. For example, the second feature article explores how Penn State biologists use remotely acquired data to track changes in vegetation that force closer contact between fruit bats that carry certain viruses and humans, to better understand potential virus spillover events before they reach pandemic level.
Wherever you are in the world right now, thank you for staying connected with your Penn State community by reading this issue. Here’s hoping that we retain any improvements we might have made in emotional, human, and pedagogical connection as we come back together. Can we pull off keeping the positive aspects of working and learning at a distance, while jettisoning the bad ones? There’s a remote chance.
Teaching Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics