By Abigail Cloutier
Though distance learning in the wake of COVID-19 is an adjustment for all Youngstown State University students, it is especially challenging for those in their last semester. Students in hands-on programs are struggling as their graduation requirements shift.
For senior dental hygiene major Kasey Hood, she worries this disruption will affect her prospects after graduation.
“Last [academic] year, we got to start cleaning real people’s [teeth],” she said. “In spring, we’re supposed to complete all of our requirements. We need 15 specific patients: children, adolescents, certain amount of buildup on teeth, and then we were supposed to take our board exam on April 15.”
After taking the clinical board exam at YSU, Hood was supposed to take a computer-simulated exam and a national board exam at a testing center. YSU emailed the dental hygiene students March 30 to inform them their clinical exam was canceled. It was expected the national exam would also be canceled.
“Right now, we don’t even know if we will graduate,” Hood said. “Our teacher told us in a Zoom meeting that we may have to take an incomplete [grade] in clinic and come back in the summer.”
However, the Office of Academic Affairs emailed students on April 3 and announced all summer courses would continue online.
“We will continue to evaluate how we can offer clinical experiences, practice, graduate research, and similar face-to-face experiences during the summer term and second summer semester,” the email from Brien Smith, provost and vice president for academic affairs, said.
Hood said several solutions have been proposed, including a temporary license or waiving requirements on a national scale, but the situation changes daily.
“It messes with my overall plan because I got accepted into graduate school [at YSU] in the fall, but I can’t go to grad school if I didn’t graduate,” she said. “So I don’t know.”
Hood said while she can continue to work at her restaurant job until the future is more certain, many of her colleagues in the program have already accepted job offers in dental offices and are unsure of what will happen.
Students in STEM are also facing difficulties regarding senior projects. Grant Wagner, Matthew Heffinger, Everett Martin, Brandon Baum and John Simcox are all senior mechanical engineering majors. Their hands-on senior project cannot be fully completed due to distance learning.
“Our senior design project was to compete in a NASA lunar robotics competition held at the Kennedy Space Center,” Simcox said. “We were tasked with designing, building, and programming a robot to navigate a mining pit that NASA has.”
The competition was originally set for the first week of May and was postponed to the first week in August before ultimately being canceled.
“So, basically things just kind of got altogether ruined by this,” Heffinger said. “Luckily, we were able to make pretty good progress before things kind of went south, so we do have what you see built already. And we’re just basically working on getting it to run correctly.”
But the actual design of the robot was only a small portion of their project and competition requirements.
“The digging portion was just one-fifth of the competition,” Simcox said. “We also had to make a presentation for NASA, write a systems engineering report and then another super cool thing that we had to do was we had to do an outreach project, which is we have to engage the general public in learning about STEM.”
That project, originally planned to occur at OH WOW! in downtown Youngstown, can no longer move forward.
However, the group said their professors have been understanding and they will still receive academic credit for their project.
“We were kind of in a special situation, but for most of the other students, it’s more writing reports, and then we’re still able to do presentations virtually, which, it’s not as good,” Wagner said. “We’re not able to do this showcase anymore, so we lose out on presentation skills, stuff like that.”
The group said that the department has been supportive.
“The department chair, Hazel Marie, is the professor for the class for our senior design capstone class,” Simcox said. “We have a lab for that class where we do most of our work, and the professor in that lab is Dr. Jason Walker. They are both as bummed as we are about our competition, and they’re handling it super cool.”
Other seniors in hands-on programs, like telecommunications, are missing out on access to university studios and equipment. Kim Lechner, a senior telecommunication studies major, ended her senior internship with YSU athletics early due to COVID-19.
“So, I guess now I’m doing a research paper hybrid thing that we came up with,” Lechner said. “But it’s really rough because I went from working consistently three days — two days a week for five hours plus games on the weekends — to nothing. So, it’s been a quick and hard turnover for me.”
Lechner’s senior project consisted of 10 podcast episodes she had to record and produce. Since she has finished about half, she’s required to write an additional research paper to gain full credit.
“You can’t replicate in person things. You just can’t replicate it online,” Lechner said. “It’s hard not being able to consult professors. It’s hard not being able to just walk down the hall and talk to someone about a situation. It’s really just that professor-student relationship that I don’t have anymore.”