Michigan Engineering News

Making a socially distant campus ‘feel more like home’: Students offer ideas

As campuses across the nation move towards the challenges of fall semester, there’s well-spring of innovation and creativity coming from students.

An app to track bus occupancy. A friend-matching system to spur connections despite social distancing. An inclusive COVID-19 testing protocol designed to eliminate out-of-network fees for students without health insurance. 

These are just a few of the 89 proposals student teams from across campus submitted in the COVID-19 Campus Challenge, an effort at the University of Michigan to generate ideas for how best to adapt to physical distancing during the upcoming fall semester

“Across the United States, universities like ours will struggle if we don’t have student buy-in, said Jeanne Murabito, executive director for student affairs at Michigan Engineering, which led the effort. “That’s why we organized this challenge — to invite student voices and participation as we navigate this uncharted territory. And we deliberately opened it up beyond engineering because the solutions need to be diverse and broad-based, just like the world at large.” 

Over 600 students participated. The proposals spanned six categories, chosen for their potential to support a successful public health-informed in-residence semester that includes a mixture of in-person and remote classes. Categories included: housing, transportation, food insecurity, co-curricular activities, diversity, equity & inclusion and mental health. 

“Housing teams suggested ways to keep communal spaces sanitary and to safely move thousands of students into dorms during welcome week,” said Sujai Arakali, a senior majoring in molecular, cellular and developmental biology and one of the organizers. “Food insecurity teams primarily focused on improving the Maize and Blue Cupboard as well as adapting dining halls to have delivery services. Co-curricular projects often proposed tracking how many people there are in a certain space and making that data available to students to help them make informed decisions on where to go. And mental health teams were focused on virtualizing appointments, expanding student involvement in providing services, and creating online platforms to encourage healthy habits.”

In the mental health track, for example, a top team created a friend-matching system inspired by the popular student-made dating survey Michigan Marriage Pact. It’s designed to help students connect with each other at a time when they’re less likely to make new friends serendipitously in person. In transportation, students proposed BlueTrace, a QR-code enabled app to track campus bus occupancy and contact tracing. And in DEI, a team highlighted that nearly 9% of students don’t have health insurance and a disproportionate number are Black or Hispanic. They recommend a three-tiered approach to making sure these students don’t face expensive out-of-network fees. While COVID tests themselves are always free, surrounding doctor’s office visits aren’t.

A panel of judges reviewed the proposals and selected 30 to participate in a virtual showcase with university and college leaders on July 1. These projects were chosen for feasibility. They have the potential to be implemented on the Ann Arbor campus. 

“It was a wonderful opportunity for motivated students to voice their opinions on how to solve some of the most pertinent problems to college life resulting from COVID-19,” said Matt O’Brien, a rising junior in biomedical engineering and peer mentor for the category of mental health. “To say I am excited to see the effect that the solutions have on campus life is an understatement; multiple teams had solutions I can envision having a positive influence on the public health of our campus.”

The challenge was originated by students, faculty and staff at Michigan Engineering. 

“Students at Michigan are problem solvers, and I thought this could give students something purposeful to do during quarantine, especially when many internships were cancelled,” said David Chang, a master’s student in biomedical engineering and one of the organizers. Read more about Chang’s perspective in this Medium article.

The COVID-19 Campus Challenge brought a sense of hope.

“I hope this shows other students out there that we have the power to propose concrete changes to the larger systems that we’re part of,” said Chang. 

At the same time, students recognize this will be a different college experience than they’re used to, or that they’ve imagined. 

“I’m looking forward to moving back to campus and sharing the college experience with other students in the same position, but I think the university did a good thing by giving people the remote option,” said Aya Fattah, a rising junior in biomolecular science in LS&A and a peer mentor. “Even coming back, it will be different—we were used to meeting in-person, going to cultural events, and studying together. That’s why I’m so passionate about these projects—implementing them will make campus feel more like home.”

Browse more proposals in these Medium articles: HousingTransportationFood insecurityCo-curricular activitiesDiversity, equity & inclusionMental health.

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