TU helps students with community-engaged research opportunities during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Kyle Hobstetter

Students support faculty community-engaged research projects as BTU partnerships pivot community engagement toward COVID-19 response

TU students having a Zoom call about a spoken word workshop online for Baltimore City public school youth.
Towson University students used zoom to work with the SAFE Alternative Foundation for Education which was facilitating a spoken word workshop online for the Baltimore City public school youth. 

During the 2020 spring term, Towson University students made a lot of adjustments. Many had to move off campus, adjust to distance learning classes and assimilate the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Aside from their studies, the pandemic dramatically impacted students’ employment.

According to a survey by the Towson University Career Center, 79% of students who responded to the survey have had their part-time employment affected by COVID-19.

“I started hearing it from my students that ‘I've lost my job, and I don't know what I'm going to do in terms of paying for tuition,’” says Matthew Durington, professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminal Justice and director of community engagement and partnerships for the Division of Strategic Partnerships and Applied Research.

“So, I asked my colleagues on the BTU partnerships team ‘What can we do in the immediate?’ That's where we came up with the idea of creating a student employment fund not only to give students a possible vocational opportunity but also to add some direct applied research to the pandemic.”

The initial idea was sparked by discussions with Lisa Plowfield, dean of the College of Health Professions, who moved unused funds toward research for CHP faculty to redirect their work towards COVID-19.

The BTU partnerships team, which manages BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore, took the concept further and reallocated some of its unused funds to help mitigate the effects of student unemployment. It not only facilitated the hiring of TU students by interested faculty across the university but also funded community-engaged research directed toward COVID-19.

The call went out to members of the BTU Council, faculty project leads for current BTU investments and the college deans on Monday, May 11. Within one week the BTU partnerships team facilitated the hiring of 24 student research assistants for 16 faculty/staff projects in every academic college, including Cook Library. 

According to Durington, this is a perfect example of how Towson University demonstrates the capacity to provide undergraduate research opportunities for students, instead of solely focusing on graduate research like most major universities.

“I think we were set up to do this because our faculty tend to work with some pretty stellar students on research projects,” Durington says. “So, it was a natural thing that a lot of them said ‘Okay, I’m working with a student on an independent study or something else. If I can resource them and provide them a stipend, then that’s going to be beneficial for everybody.’”

Along with aiding students, the BTU partnerships team and the colleges have also been able to provide opportunities for faculty who might not regularly do community engagement-based research. 

When BTU reaches out to faculty and staff about community engagement efforts, Durington gets a response from those who he calls the usual suspects—faculty and staff who are consistently engaged, recognized and resourced.

But there's a lot more untapped specialized knowledge on campus that could be applied to local and national issues, so Durington was excited when he saw the uptick in faculty engagement.

“That's been a struggle for us since BTU started—trying to get more faculty to recognize that a lot of their research can gear toward community engagement and partnership work,” Durington says. “But what was nice about this particular initiative was that we were able to capture some more projects and really extend what community engagement work is on campus.”

Durington added that the BTU partnerships team is strategizing how to best expand these student employment efforts and is developing resources and tools to support these efforts. Working in partnership with the Division of Student Affairs, the hope is to extend this type of support into the fall.

Some examples of undergraduate research projects include:

Masks during COVID-19 and speech intelligibility

Paul Evitts, professor in the Department of Speech-Language Pathology & Audiology, is researching the beneficial effects of the inclusion of visual information on the intelligibility of speech across numerous populations. Due to the novel coronavirus, masks are now required in many states as well as internationally. The effects of this requirement on speech intelligibility is unknown. 

Social media and stigma during the COVID-19 pandemic

Sushma Kumble, assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication, is looking at stigma messages disseminated on Twitter about the COVID-19 pandemic. This is an important topic of study on two levels, as stigma around this global pandemic has resulted in discrimination of Asians globally and people’s hesitation to seek medical intervention because they are scared to be stigmatized.

How Black churches are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic

Donn Worgs, professor in the Department of Political Science, is conducting a survey of Black churches regarding how they are navigating COVID-19. He wants to discover what challenges they are facing and what adaptations they’ve made to sustain their mission, maintain their institutions and continue their community outreach and service activities. The goal is to document the challenges as well as their adaptations and ultimately share these findings with potential resource providers as well as their peer institutions.

What has impressed Durington the most is that when given the opportunity to help not only students but the community as well, many faculty members stepped up.

These projects have just added to the impact that BTU—Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore has made across the region. As of spring 2020, faculty, students and staff have 410 active engagements with BTU network partners. Across all engagements, Towson University is working with 603 partner organizations in Greater Baltimore and throughout Maryland to create positive impacts.

“Our faculty have a really strong disposition to combine their teaching, research and service so they all blend and inform one another,” Durington says. “It’s the natural move for our faculty to want to do something to make an impact. It’s just been inspiring to see those efforts directed immediately to the pandemic.” 

Learn more about BTU as well the undergraduate research being done during the COVID-19 pandemic by reading Matthew Durington’s blog post on EngageTU.

This story is one of several related to President Kim Schatzel’s priorities for Towson University: BTU-Partnerships at Work for Greater Baltimore.