The Crestmont Boys and Girls Club learned virtually with the Teach IT team.
The Fall semester at Indiana University has been about students and faculty navigating the challenges of a new way to work and creating novel approaches to overcome unexpected problems.
At the Serve IT Nonprofit Technology Clinic at the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering, everything felt normal.
Flexibility and a willingness to try new methods for overcoming unexpected issues sits at the heart of Serve IT’s mission, and despite the COVID-19 outbreak, the clinic has managed to thrive as uncertainty has swirled around it. Serve IT recently celebrated its achievements this semester—albeit a month earlier than usual—during a Zoom session showcasing the work that had been done for its clients.
“We normally hold a showcase in December, but we have a shorter semester this year,” said Una Thacker, the director of Serve IT. “We held a virtual ceremony in the spring as well, but it was a great opportunity for the students to show off their work.”
Clinic co-founder and IU First Lady Laurie Burns McRobbie, who holds an adjunct appointment in the Luddy School, underscored the value of the Clinic and the students’ experiences.
“Serve IT was created with a two-fold mission—to give students unique opportunities with significant projects working in teams led by their peers, and to provide local nonprofits with much-needed technical services,” McRobbie said. “We hear constantly from both the students and the agencies how important the contacts have been, simultaneously advancing the missions of the organizations and bringing students into contact with populations they might never have crossed paths with. It’s the way service learning should be, an authentic growth experience with real-world benefits to others.”
Serve IT provided services this semester for a variety of clients. One of the teams worked on a website for Dementia Friendly Bloomington, which advocates for change throughout the state of Indiana for how those living with dementia act with autonomy and receive resources. The same team built a website for Alzheimer’s Resource Services in Bloomington. Another team worked with Flourish, Inc., a Bloomington-based breastfeeding support group that is shifting their agency from paper records to a digital database. Teams also built websites for Catholic Charities in Bloomington, the Farmer’s Museum, located in downtown Bloomington, and an alumni portal for Bloomington’s Harmony School.
Serve IT’s Teach IT program, which develops the professional skills of undergraduate students by supporting the technological self-efficacy of community members, worked with the Crestmont Boys and Girls Club as well as the Monroe County Community School Corporation to resolve issues with online learning.
Serve IT typically interacts in person with clients to judge specific needs, but the pandemic has moved meetings onto Zoom, a format that has been quickly adopted.
“The students have done a great job of switching immediately to Zoom, taking it seriously and just showing up,” Thacker said. “We have really motivated students, and they have risen to the occasion. I feel like everyone is doing a remarkable job of keeping up.”
Access to Zoom has been critical for Mary Chen, Tommy Jepson, and Ellen Liu, who are working with Dementia Friendly Bloomington and Alzheimer’s Resource Services. Jepson is the only student who is currently in the United States—Chen and Liu are in South Korea and Taiwan, respectively, and they have spent the semester studying at home due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
That hasn’t stopped the team from overcoming time zones and the Pacific Ocean to deliver for their clients. Chen and Liu have adjusted their schedules to take part in Zoom meetings at unusual hours, and the team works nearly around the clock. Jepson will work during the daytime in the United States, then he provides updates for the work he has done to Chen and Liu when handing off the work, and vice versa.
Serve IT’s effort with Flourish, Inc. has been critical as the agency switches fully online to respond to families during the COVID outbreak. Being able to log their records to the cloud mean that visits with mothers can be tracked and parents can get the help they need, despite the pandemic.
Senior Jack Ruszkowski, who is part of the Flourish, Inc. team, was motivated by the work.
“I was under quarantine for seven of the 12 weeks this semester, and my motivation to complete work decreased over time,” Ruszkowski admitted. “One thing that that kept me motivated was the work I accomplished for Serve IT. It’s real-world experience. I had to uphold some professionalism and keep the client I am working for in mind.”
Working with the Crestmont Boys and Girls Club in the virtual realm has been a challenge, but it’s one that has been met. Keeping kids engaged over time can be a struggle in the best of times, but it’s even more of an issue when kids aren’t actually allowed to spend time in a computer lab. That hasn’t stopped the Teach IT team accomplishing their goals.
“We have to be creative in our lesson plans, and that means teaching kids about technology concepts without a computer,” said Chloe Tominac, the team lead for the Boys and Girls Club. “This concept is called unplugged programming because students do not use technology while engaging in these lesson plans. The kids have responded to the programming very well because we try to utilize supplies, such as a deck of cards, to teach IF/ELSE statements, and pairs of dice to teach algorithms. We encourage the members to come up to the camera, unmute their microphone, and show or tell us about the activities that they are doing.”
The team, which includes interns Hunter Diagostino, Jessica Janek, Gabby Puzzella, and Iesha Young, breaks up the learning with some ice breakers such as freeze dance, “Simon says,” and other games to bring a fun atmosphere even though the students aren’t in the room.
“The kids are excited to see us every week,” Tominac said. “Seeing the way that our team interacts with members is a great feeling to have. The creativity and implementation have been phenomenal this semester because of the pandemic, and it allows us to think outside the box. As a team, we try to have back-up plans because we know that not every single lesson plan will turn out in the way that we want to. With that, learning how to improvise has been a strong theme because we know that not everything is perfect, and we have to prepare for the worst.”
Teach IT’s support of the Monroe County Community School Corporation has been critical this fall, too. As students began the school year with weeks of online learning, teachers needed more support. The MCCSC IT group was working at capacity to smooth out issues, and Teach IT provided backup for their efforts. As parents began to have more questions, Teach IT had to step up even more to help solve issues for everyone involved.
Teach IT also is providing support for MCCSC as they transition some of their teaching to Canvas, the online learning platform.
“We’ve been trying to help them build their knowledge base,” Thacker said. “They’ve got questions about Canvas, and we’re trying to solve some of the common questions they get so they can quickly provide answers to parents and students and teachers because they’re just being overwhelmed by the numbers of people who need help. So, it’s great that we can be a part of making that a little easier for them.”
Crisis is a catalyst for change, and the adjustments forced by the pandemic will likely carry on for Serve IT long after COVID-19 comes under control. Students have proven they can work in a virtual environment in many cases, and clients are now used to the same way of working.
“Before the pandemic, we weren’t taking Zoom seriously as a tool,” Thacker said. “Nobody really was. Now, we all see how easy it is, and it’s easier for clients. We can have meetings, but you don’t have to set aside a large block of your day to drive somewhere, find parking, and go to a meeting. On Zoom, you don’t have to get up from your desk, and you don’t have to deal with traffic or the weather. Time and distance aren’t an issue.
“Most importantly, it’s teaching students to prepare for the professional world. So many companies are getting comfortable with employees working from home, and it’s going to be very valuable for the Serve IT students to tell potential employers that they have experience working with clients from a distance and are completely comfortable working in that environment. The students have been great, and we’re happy we’ve been able to overcome so much to work with the community to meet their needs.”