Supporting math majors and grad students in the time of pandemic

By panelists Giovanny Marquez and Lucy Martinez, and moderator Pamela E. Harris

The 2021 Joint Math Meetings (JMM) conference included a special session organized by Dr. Katherine Stevenson, chair of the AMS Committee on Education. The program of this special session included presentations by Dr. Viveka Brown and Dr. Tasha R. Inniss. In her presentation “Ways to Build Community for Students in a Virtual Classroom”, Dr. Brown shared methods and techniques to build community in an online classroom environment. She suggested continuing to build a growth mindset virtually and provided collaborative learning ideas that professors could implement in their remote teaching. In her presentation “Re-Innovating Training and Support of Math Majors”, Dr. Inniss discussed the effective preparation of math majors which involves a recognition of the needs of students as whole persons, particularly during crises such as the current COVID pandemic and also in addressing systemic racism. The two presentations were followed by a panel discussion by Giovanny Marquez, Lucy Martinez, and Becky Tang surrounding the question: What can we do to support math majors and grad students in the time of pandemic?” In the panel, Giovanny, Becky, and Lucy shared their experiences as undergraduate and graduate students learning within the virtual environment.

In this blog, Giovanny and Lucy share with the math community their responses to questions received during the panel and their advice on how to best help students continue learning and engaging in their mathematics courses as we near the one year mark since the beginning of the COVID-19 global pandemic. We point out that students provided some advice in May 2020 about their initial feedback on supporting student learning when the pandemic began and that can be read here.

What follows is part of written responses given by Giovanny and Lucy to the questions presented during the panel.

Dr. Harris: What do you wish your professor knew about your current experience with remote learning and living during this pandemic?

Giovanny: The difficulty in school/life balance being at home. Many students went back home when everything was moved online, and extra responsibilities came with it. I personally drove my mom to and back from work while living at home to help when covid-19 first began for a quarter. I know people that helped take care of younger siblings, helped parents with work (cleaning houses), and others. These added responsibilities make it challenging to find a schedule/routine that feels fluid while at home for school.

Lucy: There are some students who do not have a designated space to attend online classes. In my experience, I live in a small apartment with two siblings who also have online classes. It was hard to focus on my classes and homework when everyone was around. There are other reasons that students cannot focus while at home. As a recommendation, it is helpful to have recorded lectures so that we can watch it at our own pace.

Dr. Harris: As a student, what do you need from your institution and your mentors during this time? What about logistical needs: Equipment, WIFI, scheduling?

Lucy: There are students who do not own a computer. Other students need devices for audio so that they interact with professors. However, they may be shy to ask for equipment. It would be better if professors had a survey before classes begin to find out if anyone needs any equipment.

Giovanny: A tablet would be helpful. It can be difficult to get across questions with just words, especially in math. Using a digital whiteboard is helpful but it only works best when a touch screen device is owned. Also, uploading class lectures to be viewed later can help with schedule conflicts, or if you want to write notes and can’t keep up with how quick the lecture is moving during a zoom call.

Dr. Harris: Emotionally speaking, how do you stay connected and supported? If you are feeling isolated, what structures might help?

Lucy: If I felt isolated, I would reach out to friends and professors. I think professors and students should both arrange a social event once in a while instead of class to get to know everyone. Another recommendation is to have the first five minutes of class to say hi or welcome students with cheerful music. It is hard to feel supported if you just attend class every other day via zoom and then do homework and repeat the same cycle over and over again. Something important to remember is to take care of our mental health. I hope that every university offers services for students who need counseling. When I was struggling mentally, I seeked out counseling services. My institution offered phone calls and I was lucky to receive a phone call every week from my counselor. It is crucial to prioritize mental health because it affects the way we live our daily lives.

Giovanny: Being available and understanding. The main thing I noticed was that I had to not be shy about asking for help. This can be difficult especially when students know that professors are bombarded with tons of emails daily. Oftentimes, students don’t want to come off as whiny or needy, but it is important to air out difficulties going on. A recommendation is to have specific platforms to get messages from your class go to a specific spot so that you get only messages from students directly to the designated space. A few professors use apps like Discord, Slack and others to have each class with its own way of communicating with the students. Sometimes research meetings became talks to air out concerns/issues that were going on and that was okay. Reaching out more than usual was needed to talk with friends and check in to make sure others were okay.

Dr. Harris: As a tutor or teaching assistant, what do you need from your institution and your mentors during this time? What about logistical needs: Equipment, WIFI, scheduling?

Giovanny: A device such as a drawing tablet to portray what you are tutoring. It feels more natural to do problems and explain as you do them to teach others than having to write down solutions beforehand and explaining line by line.

Lucy: Some other devices besides a drawing tablet may include headphones or even a computer. At the beginning of the pandemic, I did not have a drawing tablet, I had to use the touchpad of my computer whenever I worked with students. However, I was brave enough to talk about it with my professor who helped me by lending her drawing tablet to me.

Dr. Harris: Emotionally speaking, do you know how to support a diverse group of students? Have you worried about how to help those that are most vulnerable?

Lucy: As a tutor, I have worried about certain students. I worry for freshmen students who are first generation and do not have the support needed at home that they usually find on campus. Last fall semester, those students did not have the emotional support and motivation when classes were held in person. I worry about students who do not have a mentor in their college career due to the current limitations. Having a mentor is important to have for extra support.

Giovanny: With everything online, it feels harder to see diversity as much. Classes are just names on a screen. During these times, I think it is important to reach out to students who are falling behind in class and provide solutions to help them. This transition to online learning is difficult for everyone and TAs/professors need to be more proactive to identify those that might need help.

Panelist Biographies:

Giovanny is currently a graduate student at the University of California Santa Cruz. He is studying applied mathematics particularly math bio. Other mathematical interests include modeling, machine learning and control theory. He has been a part of programs which focus on helping minority students in STEM as both a student and mentor. He hopes to continue to work in such programs as he continues to pursue his degree. Photo Credit: Ana Marquez.

Lucy is a senior undergraduate at Stockton University in New Jersey. She is majoring in mathematics and will attend graduate school in the fall 2021 to pursue a PhD in mathematics. Her future goals include working as a mathematician, collaborating with undergraduates on research projects and strengthening representation for Hispanic women in mathematics. Besides mathematics, Lucy has a passion for Amazon parrots which are intelligent and sociable birds.  Photo credit: Nicole Manno.

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