We can’t risk losing a cohort of young scientists due to the pandemic

With the right investments, we can create the foundation for the current generation of researchers to remain inspired and do their best work.
October 30, 2020

Canadian colleges and universities made a rapid and impressive shift last spring to move teaching online and ensure that students were able to complete their year. This fall, many institutions will offer hybrid models of online and in-person classes to keep students and faculty safe and healthy – with appropriate spacing, of course.

When it comes to hands-on learning in laboratories, the challenge of teaching and training at a distance will be significant. There are only so many labs available at each institution. Will there simply be fewer lab sessions offered or will schools run them round the clock? This challenge, while surmountable, will have impacts that extend far beyond the COVID-19 “gap year.”

We stand to lose not only students but also a cohort of young scientists. Researchers will see their opportunities for training significantly affected because of reduced access to research facilities or because they cannot see for themselves the results of their theoretical designs. And this is without counting the labs and equipment that have been put to work to help with the current crisis and are no longer available for learning.

The ability to teach and learn effectively is of great consequence and requires a strong commitment from all concerned parties. For online courses, teachers will have to adapt to communicating in a virtual environment and students will need to find new ways of learning and collaborating with their teachers and fellow students. Both need proper equipment, dedicated digital spaces and the willingness to reimagine traditional techniques of sharing and receiving information. For courses offered in-person, the number of students in every class is necessarily limited. This means that schools might have to offer the same classes more than once. Additional faculty and spaces might be required at a time when many institutions are facing serious fiscal pressure.

Faculty do their best to serve students and, in turn, students dedicate their efforts to conquering the challenge of learning on a laptop. However, it is perhaps time to think about the future and about those not able to continue their studies, especially in their chosen fields. Just as many workplaces have changed since March, the “new normal” for education this fall is much different than it was before. Can we make certain that the changes are for the good and that they enable us to include many styles of learning and to continue excellent research? The answer is yes. Though they require some investments, the following three suggestions begin to respond to these challenges.

The first is to adopt technology to help faculty and staff produce the highest quality online courses and materials possible. It is important to create opportunities for sharing creative ideas and best practices. People who once met at the cafeteria or the water cooler to swap teaching techniques now need spaces for informal but dedicated dialogue online.

The field of modeling and simulation has grown over the years. It is now possible to conduct experiments that recreate many types of research installations, from wind tunnels and operating theatres to space shuttles. Faced with the inability to bring teams of researchers into labs and facilities, it would be important to invest in bringing this expertise and the necessary equipment and data online, and make them accessible to students as an integral part of research training.

Citizen science is an area of great interest to the public. With limited travel opportunities to conduct fieldwork, there will be a greater need to develop relationships with community scientists in the regions where researchers and students would normally conduct their work. Increasingly, researchers are developing such relationships with people living in remote areas, directly benefitting from their local knowledge. To be effective, good means of communication and strong networks will be required along with appropriate protocols.

As we create the “new normal,” we can still envision accomplishing our current work and raising our sights to higher goals. By embracing technology and welcoming citizen scientists, we will create the foundation for a “better normal” that will enable the current generation of researchers to remain inspired and will offer new opportunities to collaborate in the important research that will create a better world and surpass today’s limitations.

This piece originally appeared in University Affairs on Tuesday, October 6, 2020.