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Remote learning helps UVM launch collaboration and expand diversity

Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 5:57 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - We've told you about the challenges of remote learning during the pandemic. But it has also opened the door for a new partnership between the University of Vermont and Jackson State University.

Burlington, Vermont, and Jackson, Mississippi, are about 1,500 miles apart. But online learning has made it possible for students at both institutions to share classes and perspectives. Our Cat Viglienzoni shows you how the first one this summer went.

In a PSA, Kayla Gorden warns her community in East Atlanta, Georgia, about the dangers of lead. But you’ll also see shots of homes in Burlington, Vermont. That’s because the Jackson State University civil engineering senior developed this with a UVM student. Both took a summer class through UVM studying lead pollution.

"I didn't know how bad of a toxin it was until I took the class," Gorden said. "And then I did more research just on my neighborhood, just because it is a predominately Black neighborhood that I live in, and it's so much old lead paint around us."

The topic of lead was no accident. UVM Geology Professor Paul Bierman says with the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and Burlington's efforts to remove lead from its older housing stock, it's timely.

"Lead is really interesting because it allows us to address not only science-- environmental science issues-- but a lot of environmental injustice issues, especially racial injustice issues," Bierman said.

Despite being taught online, the three-week course was hands-on. Students like Gorden were sent equipment. And in video lectures, their teachers showed them how to take water samples. Those were mailed to UVM where Bierman ran the samples and sent the results back to students to analyze. What he found was that when students took the science to their own neighborhoods, they were more engaged and the data more diverse.

"Students of all colors, all backgrounds, all races, all income levels can all look at this same contaminant and see it differently," Bierman said. "This never would have happened if we had not gone remote."

The two institutions have been in talks for years about a partnership. JSU is a historically black university and UVM a predominately white one. Educators say an exchange will bring a diversity of perspectives to both campuses. But it hadn’t happened yet because of the administrative and financial hurdles of sending students back and forth. The silver lining to the COVID crisis was that it showed the universities they didn’t have to.

"We can do it, and we can build an opportunity and a bridge around the 1,500 miles. And if it's making a difference for students to get that different perspective, it's well worth it," said UVM Provost and Senior Vice President Patty Prelock.

Gorden wants to be an environmental engineer. She's now considering UVM as a potential spot for graduate work.

"I can say that I enjoyed getting that different style of learning, being in a classroom of people who are different than me," Gorden said. "I would definitely do it again."

Thanks to remote learning, she might be able to. UVM officials tell me their goal is a long-term partnership.

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