Mental Wellness in the Time of COVID-19

Zoom class
Zoom classes, like IME 443 pictured here, are the new reality during virtual Learn by Doing.

As nearly every aspect of college life has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, schools around the country have been forced to quickly close campuses, put locks on laboratory doors and convert courses to online-only — all with little data about the impact on the mental wellness of students.

A research project launched in April by Cal Poly electrical engineering Professor Andrew Danowitz aims to provide some of that critical data by surveying thousands of undergraduate engineering students about how they are coping with this new reality, and how COVID-19 is affecting their levels of stress.

“We’re very interested to see how students are dealing with the stress from COVID-19 and how working from home affects students, whether being closer to family helps improve things or makes certain things worse,” Danowitz said. “The information from the survey will be used to help inform universities and engineering programs nationwide on how best to support students during this crisis and in future emergencies.”

Working with co-investigator Casey Beddoes with the San Jose State Research Foundation, Danowitz said he started sending out surveys to engineering students at Cal Poly and other universities almost immediately after receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation.

“The NSF put out a special call in March for proposals to try to study the effects of COVID-19,” he said. “It’s a one-year grant known as a rapid grant that’s designed for quick studies and quick review of data about any sort of disaster or event where getting data fast is critical.”

Danowitz said critical parts of the survey cover a wide spectrum of student experience, from ease of access to online instruction and required course materials, to the stress of dealing with the economic fallout of the pandemic such as housing or food insecurity, and coping strategies for anxiety attacks.

“All the survey questions are based off of pre-existing, pre-verified mental health and stress screens,” he said. “We also have open-ended questions on what students think of their institution’s handling of COVID-19, and we seek suggestions on how the colleges could make it better. Because the transition happened so fast, it will be interesting to see the student’s suggestions on how online learning can be improved.”

Danowitz said he hopes an incentive budget of 1,000 Amazon $5 gift cards included in the grant would spur response to the survey, which he hopes to finalize by the end of the academic calendar year.

“Many colleges that run on a semester time schedule and are wrapping things up for the year, so we’re really trying to get it distributed as widely as we can right now before the students go off into summer mode,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll have all the data collection finished by the end of the quarter and then have summer quarter to analyze it.”

There are a number of publication opportunities for the research later this year, Danowitz said.

“We’re hoping to publish the results at the POD Network Annual Conference in September, and we’re also targeting the Australasian Society for Engineering Education in November and the Hawaii International Conference on Education in January,” he said. “There has been a call for article for a special COVID-19 issue of the Journal of Engineering Education that we plan to target.”

Are you an undergraduate engineering student and 18 or older?
If so, we need your help!

We are conducting a survey to determine how engineering students are coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and how COVID-19 is affecting student stress levels. This information will be used to help inform universities and engineering programs nationwide on how best to support students during this crisis and in future emergencies. If you are willing to participate, please complete the survey. We estimate participation will take about 15 minutes. As an added bonus, the first 1,000 participants will receive a $5 gift card!

The Cal Poly College of Engineering understands there has been an enormous amount of turmoil and transition due to Coronavirus (COVID-19). As we continue offering support to our students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends, we also continue providing critical updates as well as college highlights. Ours is a college full of creative and bright engineers and staff. For more information on COVID-19 visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. For more information on how Cal Poly is responding to COVID-19, visit the Cal Poly Coronavirus website Coronavirus website.


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