ASU geographers, urban planners bridge distance gap, build community

The School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning faculty, staff and students use skills and creativity to support one another amid COVID-19

On a recent Friday morning, nearly 30 Arizona State University School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning faculty, staff and students gathered for virtual coffee. 

General updates were given. People shared how they were feeling and what they were working on. Jokes were told and poems were read. The group even sang happy birthday to a fellow staff member. 

In the face of the unexpected coronavirus pandemic that has closed businesses around the world, moved ASU classes online and sent ASU staff home, smiles still filled laptop screens and people felt united. 

“Coffee with the director is something we’ve done on and off when I’ve felt there were groups that needed more connection,” said Trisalyn Nelson, director of the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “I just felt that it was an important time for people to have access to leadership and ask questions. I miss our family when we are not together. It’s a good way to stay connected.” 

Leading the way for creative solutions 

As the entire university adapts to new routines and schedules working and learning from home, students, faculty and staff are working together to create new pathways for maintaining community and engaging virtually.

Kelly Shea, a master's degree in advanced study in geographic information systems (GIS) student, says in light of the transition to online courses, her fellow GIS students created their own Zoom video chat room that is open 24/7 to collaborate with each other, answer questions and even chat about their day. 

“Last night we were all struggling with an assignment and we hopped onto a Zoom call together to go over it,” Shea said. “I do miss the lab just because it was a quiet place to work outside of the house and I do miss the interaction with all of our classmates, but it’s been so nice, despite the circumstances, to be able to hop in there and collaborate if we still wanted to.”

Faculty, too, are utilizing technology to creatively maintain and increase their level of interaction with students inside and outside scheduled lectures.

“I’m encouraging students to keep open communications with me,” said Robin Martin, associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. “I acknowledge there will be changes in their lives, kids at home, shifting work schedules — so keeping in contact and being available if they have a problem is important. I also want to keep their class going so they can have some sort of normalcy.”

Martin, who teaches geographic research methods, adapted her course to give students an opportunity to process their experience with COVID-19 and think critically about applying their human geographical knowledge to the pandemic from a spatial perspective. 

“I wanted to give students an opportunity to write about this whole scenario, to think about relationships between data and the virus,” Martin said. 

Jason Kelley, lecturer in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning who is currently teaching five courses that have now transitioned online, admits to having some hesitancy moving online at first, given the highly interactive nature of his courses, but both he and his students have been pleasantly surprised with the transition and the effectiveness of Zoom's capabilities.

“The positive feedback from my students has been a tremendous motivator for me personally,” Kelley said. “I was fearful that students would have a hard time with this transition, but they seem to have adapted quite well to the new format, and are still just as participatory and eager to learn as always. We have an incredible group of talented urban planning students in (our school), and their hard work and dedication continue to amaze me.” 

Students helping other students 

Support continues to come from all directions, and students are helping other students.