Students pivot social research and design projects in light of pandemic

Students in Mona Sloane’s social research and design course — offered as part of the Integrated Digital Media program — are taught to reflect critically as they design. “I want them to think about the implications of what they’re designing, and I provide them with the background and tools they need to do that,” she says. 

As spring break approached, most had given a great deal of thought to the major social research and design project that would be due by the end of the semester. They had painstakingly crafted abstracts, put their ideas into context, researched case studies, and thought about their next steps.

Then the COVID-19 crisis hit, and some of those projects, so carefully prepared, were rethought entirely. “I was amazed by the speed at which they pivoted,” Sloane says. “They developed new projects, all related to aspects of the pandemic, with a rigor and creativity that was very impressive.”

One student, aware of the difficulties facing mourners at a time when social distancing precludes in-person funerals, designed a study of grief and grieving rituals.

Another, Nelson James, who had long been interested in curriculum design, acknowledged that COVID-19 was causing an unprecedented shift within the field of secondary education and plans to embark upon a study of how tools like Zoom, Blackboard Collaborate, and Google Classroom are being used to replace in-person education. He wants to know how technology contributes to inequalities and how it can be made more inclusive of different circumstances. “I hope to answer basic questions like whether asynchronous or synchronous classes work better for students and whether they are still actually learning as well as they would be in conventional classrooms,” he says. “Above all, I think it’s important to start thinking about how we can better plan for future crises of this type so that transitions to remote learning are not as bumpy.”

The need to work and study from home gave Alejandro Ribadeneira Varea an idea. As anyone who now spends hours hunched over a makeshift desk can attest, our physical positions are limited by the objects and architecture surrounding us. Ribadeneira  — a Gallatin student whose concentration is focused on how domestic design, fabricated artifacts, and spatial organization determine the rituals of everyday life  — wants to understand seating as a shared human phenomenon that entails close proximity and interaction with artefacts and spaces of distinct characteristics. How much of the day do those in quarantine spend sitting? What cultural factors contribute to how and where we perch ourselves?  “Potentially, the research could result in a design for a modular piece of furniture that may disguise itself as sculpture or plaything,” Ribadeneira explains.

Learning more about how we grieve, educate our children, and get our work done in a time of pandemic will undeniably help us better cope with our current situation and plan for the future, and one student, Muhan Guo, is focusing her project on another important question with real-world application. “Back in 1973, during the oil crisis, the popular late-night television host Johnny Carson made a joke about an upcoming toilet paper shortage, which ended up causing a brief actual shortage,” she explains. “I’d like to find out why there has been so much panic buying of toilet paper in recent weeks  — what impels people to hoard and whether social media plays a role, just as a much-watched television show did decades ago.”