Behrend Rebounds

Caralyn Harben was able to continue her summer internship from home. 

Caralyn Harben was able to continue her summer internship from home. 

Credit: Contributed Photo

Pandemic Provides a Case Study In Resiliency

This spring, Dr. Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, a professor of psychology at Penn State Behrend, was teaching a course on trauma and resiliency when COVID-19 plunged the class into a real-life case study.

“When we left for spring break, I had been teaching about trauma,” she said. “When we came back remotely, the pandemic and stay-at-home orders provided a lesson in trauma, and the course gave them an intellectual perspective that would help them cope better with the situation.”

The first goal in a crisis—including a pandemic—is to survive and be functional, Hetzel-Riggin said. That’s enough, at least at the start.

“We’re in a long-term crisis,” she said, “but humans are incredibly resilient. We have evolved to handle challenging situations. We have learned how to survive, even when the chips are down.”

Here are just a few examples of the ways that Behrend faculty, staff, and students rose to the challenges presented by the pandemic this year:

Summer Learners Adapt

When the pandemic arrived in the United States, it disrupted not only the last few weeks of the academic semester for students, but summer plans, too. With activity across the country and most of the world at a standstill, job offers, internships, and research opportunities were suddenly vanishing or being put on hold.

Even in a time as tumultuous as this, though, persistence and ingenuity pay off, and many Behrend students found ways to continue learning and getting hands-on experience from home this summer.

Caralyn Harben, a junior majoring in Software Engineering, had been looking forward to spending her summer working at Northrop Grumman’s Redondo Beach, California, location before the coronavirus forced her to stay at home. While she lamented the location change, she was thankful to still have the opportunity to support the company’s Space Systems division as a software engineering intern. “I was lucky that Northrop Grumman decided to continue their internship program with many of us, including me, working remotely,” Harben said.

A team of Engineering students— Michael Magnotti, Samantha Melnik, and Cameron Butts—worked remotely on a paid summer research project with Dr. Faisal Aqlan, associate professor of industrial engineering, and Carol Putman, assistant teaching professor of management. The project focused on applying an abstract concept to everyday business processes. At the end of the summer, the team submitted their work to the International Conference on Industrial Engineering and Operations Management Undergraduate Paper Competition, where they won third place.

The Show Must Go On(Line)

When it came to remote instruction and learning, the musical and performing arts were particularly challenged. How do you host a band concert when members are spread out across the country? How do you put on a stage performance when the actors are not even in the same city?

Fortunately, artists and musicians are skilled at thinking outside the box.

Dr. Gabrielle Dietrich, associate teaching professor of music and director of choral ensembles, came up with a plan to allow each student to step into the spotlight—a virtual cabaret performance. Students recorded their own videos, which Dietrich uploaded to YouTube and compiled into one “show,” which the classes gathered to watch together virtually.

Emily Cassano, assistant teaching professor of music, theater, and visual arts, was able to transition her theatre and acting classes to a remote format, with some courses proving more challenging than others to teach from afar. “All in all, the Musical Theatre and Intro to Theatre classes went smoothly,” Cassano said. “One of the nice things was that many different outlets released recordings of live performances online, so my students had access to many more musicals than they would normally have had.”

Dr. Gary Viebranz, teaching professor of music and director of instrumental ensembles, presented students with an asynchronous project that explored the elements of music through short vocal improvisation on various topics. Finished work was uploaded to create a repository of sound files. These were then assembled to create a “sound collage,” with the final product being a four-movement “Remote Motet” on the theme “Behrend is … .”

Viebranz’s students came together, virtually, on the scheduled concert date to see and hear their composition. They closed out the semester with a virtual alma mater, inviting alumni to join current students in creating a performance video for commencement.

Science Story Time At-Home Edition

The School of Science began offering free Science Story Time events to the Erie community a few years ago, each pairing a storybook reading with a hands-on science lesson for preschool-age children.

The program offers young children, accompanied by a parent or caregiver, the chance to visit campus and learn that science can be fun. Started by Tracy Halmi, associate teaching professor of chemistry, it was instantly popular.

When the COVID-19 crisis forced the cancellation of all gatherings on campus, Halmi decided to take Science Story Time online with the help of Kennedy Wittman, a senior majoring in Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Under Halmi’s guidance, Wittman took the lead on lesson planning, which gave her valuable experience for her future career as an elementary school teacher. Wittman shot the videos in her home, demonstrating fun experiments such as “lava lamp in a glass,” “fizzing planets,” and “three-ingredient slime.” The videos were then uploaded to storytime. There are currently a dozen fun experiments posted. 

Seeing Stars Online with Yahn Planetarium

Yahn Planetarium at Penn State Behrend has been going nonstop for six years. In that time, more than 46,000 visitors have attended programs. When the facility had to be closed, Jim Gavio, planetarium director, began offering public programs online for free.

Gavio has been recording presentations and posting them online at He is also doing monthly star talks, in which he guides viewers looking at the current night sky in the Erie area, as well as occasional special presentations, such as one on SpaceX’s Demo-2 launch and one on the basics of using a telescope.

The planetarium is also offering virtual field trips, interactive group presentations led by Gavio via Zoom. “I use an astronomy program that simulates the night sky here in Erie so that I can point out specific constellations and stars and planets that they would see in the sky that night,” Gavio said.