As the nationwide higher-education landscape shifted to remote learning in March, UVM faculty, supported by staff in multiple units, rapidly pivoted to this reality of life during pandemic times. A kitchen table with a laptop became the new lectern; a seat on the couch became the new seat in a classroom; those were the easy parts. Shifting syllabi, teaching methods, and mediums on the fly, that’s where the challenge rested. In meeting that challenge, faculty drew on expertise from units such as the Center for Teaching and Learning, Continuing and Distance Education, and Enterprise Technology Services. In some cases, professors not only adapted course material but tailored it to the singular moment we are living through. Here’s a window on some of that work.


A week-long unit on birding is a staple of Brendan Fisher’s Introduction to Environmental Studies course. For the associate professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources and fellow in the Gund Institute, it runs a good deal deeper than learning to distinguish between a nuthatch and a treecreeper. “I’m convinced that birding is the gateway drug to environmental action, conservation science, and sustainability,” he says.

Fisher’s faculty colleague Trish O’Kane, a passionate birder who teaches a course called Birding to Change the World, leads the birding unit in his introductory course, and she led the charge in finding a way to make this key part of the course still viable for all 222 students scattered across twenty-seven states. Drawing on her contacts with the National Audubon Society, O’Kane quickly had a network of hardcore birders nationwide to learn from—local mentors knowledgeable in regional species and their habitats—for every student in the class. Mentors connected with the students on the phone or online.

First-year student Mia Harris headed out on a birding walk along the Jersey Shore with her father tagging along in person and birding mentor Rachel Dipietro on the phone to help identify what they might find on the wing. When a huge bird flew into sight, Dipietro quickly pegged it as an osprey. The drama of seeing the raptor dive straight down to snatch a fish from the ocean’s surface made an impression on Harris, as did the quiet beauty of that particular stretch of shore. “It reminded me why I’m interested in environmental politics and policy in the first place,” she says. “It really sparked a motivation in me.”


As Professor Alice Fothergill met with her spring semester Sociology of Disaster class for the first time on January 11, she was still in search of a real-world disaster to bring depth and connection to her lectures and reading assignments.

“Every time I teach the class,” says Fothergill, a pioneer in the field of disaster sociology and one of its leading scholars, “something happens in the world, and it becomes our case study for the semester”—a way to study risk perception, effective warning communications, disaster response and how disaster affects different socioeconomic groups unequally, in real time.

No spoiler alert needed, readers will see where this is headed. As professor and students watched the pandemic spool out worldwide and experienced it in their own ways, the classroom connection continued from afar via video lectures, readings, and Fothergill’s extensive comments on papers. And as the expert on the sociology of disaster collaborated with colleagues nationwide on new studies and contributed commentary to popular media such as The Atlantic and The New York Times, students gained from the opportunity to see the teacher/scholar model—emerging research and scholarship informing undergraduate instruction—play out in real time.


Farryl Bertmann, a lecturer in the Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, used the online platform Flipgrid to foster connection and keep the discussion rolling in her course focused on community nutrition. Students could view a grid of each classmate’s face on their screen, which they could click on to see and hear individual responses to the week’s discussion topic. To engage, they simply recorded their own video messages in reply and added it to the grid.

For students studying community nutrition, the pandemic became a living case study to understand complex topics like food insecurity and the epidemiology of disease. Bertmann adapted the course to center discussions around how these issues were being impacted.

Responding to a Flipgrid discussion prompt on how Covid-19 will impact food security in the United States, junior Johannah Gaitings-Harrod said, “I think the Covid-19 outbreak is going to dramatically increase the amount of food insecure households we have in America. There are also so many more families that might be affected by healthcare costs, so that takes away from the disposable income they could spend on food before.” The dietetics, nutrition and food sciences major also pointed out the challenges with getting food to kids and families in more rural areas like in her hometown of Corinth, Maine, where she volunteered at a food distribution site.


Senior capstone courses provide students with a key opportunity to integrate their academic learning with experience in their field of study. Four health sciences seniors—Stephanie O’Neill, Bryce Zicarelli, Elizabeth Tansey, and Sophie Akellian—began their spring semester capstone working with RiseVt, an organization that supports local community wellness efforts, focused on strengthening a community garden program in Milton, Vermont. The students had just begun meeting with local leaders and residents when the university moved to remote learning. A new project with a larger scope, and potentially more reach, was born.

The foursome collected resources for residents statewide to access and prepare nutritious food, stay physically active, support home-based learning, and manage anxiety. Lists and links to exercise activities, educational tools, cooking guides, meditation and mindfulness apps, music, and podcasts were posted on social media channels for anyone to use anywhere—vital wellness resources for families and individuals stuck at home.
“These students have been educated in public health—including epidemics and health promotion—which has prepared them well to understand and work to support our communities during this unprecedented time,” says course instructor Deborah Hinchey, Health Sciences program director. “They may be working remotely, but they continue to have an impact. Their work is more relevant now than ever.”

blurry shot out a window

Disinfected Dystopia, Patricia Bubis ’21


Students in Professor Bill McDowell’s introductory photography class had just started diving into an abstract photography assignment when the move to remote education occurred. The assignment remained the same, but with a critical difference, the professor instructed students to use their particular situation during the pandemic as a frame of reference.

“I always ask students to work from an individual place or space, and I ask them to try to make work that only they can make. Under these circumstances, I feel that that’s even more important. It’s the poet, it’s the filmmaker, it’s the photographer, it’s the sculptor who shows us who we are and who reminds us who we are. And that doesn’t just happen in times of plenty. It’s all the more important that it happens in these very tumultuous, challenging times.”

—Professor Bill McDowell



Janet Franz, Rachel Leslie, Richard Watts