Stanford University
Dean Stephan Graham

Dean's Desk

Posts for faculty, students, and staff from the desk of Steve Graham...

Photo by Steve Castillo

A silver lining

ClockMay 27, 2021

Here we are at academic year’s end. Commencement is just a couple of weeks away and our graduates are anxious to go out into the world – not just figuratively, but literally. While it’s been a tough 15 months of pandemic, I want to end on an upbeat note of admiration and gratitude for something of a silver lining: the solid work and promising ideas that have come out of this nightmare. Everyone has persistently and creatively plowed through this strange time. While there have been serious stresses and feeling truly normal is still ahead of us, I know everyone has done their best. I want to reflect on a few examples – there are many more than these – of the good things that have come out of the hard work and pivots that took place, large and small. Zoom, among other tools, has brought people together who otherwise would have been unable to travel from elsewhere on the globe.

New ways of teaching

All our faculty made a rapid switch to online teaching. To be sure, a number of them had used virtual materials or taught online well before COVID-19. Among them: Mark Zoback, Pam Matson and Julia Novy-Hildesley, George Hilley, Simona Onori, Tiziana Vanorio, Morgan O’Neill, and Kevin Arrigo, to name only a few.

For Scott Fendorf, however, it was the pandemic that gave incentive for creativity. He used an iPhone (in the hands of his teenage son), Youtube, and his editing skills to mount a soil texturing lab in his backyard for his Science of Soils course. It was a smoothly-delivered, well-conceived, clear, lab demonstration – as if you were right there with him. Only an appearance by the family cat made you realize Scott was trapped at home like the rest of us – but even that must have created a feeling of connection for the students.

Prevented from taking students into the field, George Hilley, who has experimented with online teaching and apps for years, mounted his Moving and Shaking in the Bay Area field trip course online. Working with teaching assistants Aaron Steelquist and Curtis Baden,  he created nine virtual field trips utilizing photospheric images, videos, and activities.

photospheric image for virtual field trip
An image from one of George Hilley's online field trips for the course Moving and Shaking in the Bay Area.

In one video, students were able to ‘stand alongside’ George as he pointed out the Santa Cruz mountain ridge lines and used seismicity maps to outline the trajectory of earthquake faults in the region. Moreover, he has shared his materials for use in our Stanford Earth high school summer program. George also has incorporated his virtual resources into Master Classes, which are used to enlighten admitted Stanford students about potential pursuits and majors.

Director of Field Education Ryan Petterson, who is normally focused on in-person field courses, spent the last year developing advanced virtual field resources and trips for locations from Death Valley to Pebble Beach.  These immersive visual tours can incorporate maps, video and audio to provide a broad range of learning experiences that bring the field into classrooms, preparing students for in-person field activities. Ryan presented this ‘you-are-there’ tool to a number of groups and educators this last year – including the Stanford Board of Trustees. He is also working with the Graduate School of Education and is supported by its Transforming Learning Accelerator initiative. Both George and Ryan also see their work as allowing greater accessibility to field study.


As with so many things involving technology, the devil is in the details. Several of our teaching assistants really brought Zoom and online learning alive with engaging add-ons that inspired and encouraged the kind of discussion we hope for in the live classroom. Emily Lacroix, for example, taught Mitigating Climate Change through Soil Management, a course with Scott Fendorf. Students watched pre-recorded lectures in the Panopto video platform, and during class on Zoom students reinforced concepts by completing individual and small group activities using  Google Docs

And in Diversity and Inclusion in the Geosciences, graduate instructors Shersingh Joseph Tumber-Davila and Lauren Abrahams embraced the digital format by having their students create GIFs instead of posters for their final projects. Lauren and Joseph kept students engaged by integrating breakout rooms with techniques such as think-pair-share, group reflections, popcorn, jam boards, mood boards, icebreakers, and session exit surveys. Tiziana Vanorio pressed into service a virtual laboratory she developed years earlier that teaches students how to measure the properties of rocks and geomaterials. Compared to in-person teaching, Vanorio said she has gone more slowly and posed questions more frequently to reinforce relationships on Zoom.  

Looking ahead

Jenny Saltzman, who has been our longstanding Director of Outreach Education until her recent appointment as Assistant Dean for Educational Affairs, transformed our Young Investigators program, which normally hosts 20 to 35 high school students for lab research each summer, into a new online program for 100 students, thus more than quadrupling the number of young people we reached in 2020! The program aims to interest future students to study the Earth Sciences. It will run online again this summer for another 100 students. The success of the program, which relied on weekly talks from faculty, virtual lab tours, an undergraduate student panel, talks from our lab research scientists, and virtual field trips, inspired Jenny to envision a future, 10-week after-school program for teens from the Bay Area who could tap into faculty lectures online and visit campus once or twice during the quarter.

Others used online platforms to stay connected to our larger scientific community. Jane Willenbring gave more than 100 talks and lectures over the last year on her participation in PBS NOVA’s Picture a Scientist film to promote a discrimination-free and inclusive culture here and across the sciences. Margot Gerritsen, who has led the successful Women in Data Science conference for several years now, leveraged the virtual events platform Hopin and a production company to convene some 100 WiDS speakers and presentations over 24 hours around the world and managed to MC the whole thing! Clearly, across the board, we have managed to connect. There are lessons learned for the post-pandemic era here: More people have been attracted to many of our virtual gatherings than typically attended in-person events.

The wheels stayed on the bus

Less visible are the roles our department directors of finance and operations (DFOs), our student service officers (SSOs), peer wellness liaisons, and dean’s staff have played keeping the wheels on the bus. As our prime safety and university emergency committee liaison, Director of Facilities and Planning  Sandy Meyer, along with Senior Associate Dean Amy Balsom and their teams, spent hours strategizing building control and monitoring protocols – all developed on the fly as the COVID-19 lockdown suddenly descended.

Associate Dean for Educational Affairs Robyn Dunbar and Assistant Dean for Student Services Alyssa Ferree, along with Margot Gerritsen, helped faculty pivot to online learning as the shelter-in-place took hold. Robyn and Alyssa participated with colleagues across campus to ensure academic continuity and student support needs. Audrey Yau harnessed the Gather platform to host a virtual Stanford Earth Undergraduate Fair to replace Majors Night, which was canceled in February. Likewise, Jon Payne and Ryan Petterson sprung into action leading a university-wide working group on field research to ensure work was conducted safely and in line with rapidly changing travel restrictions. Fortunately, domestic travel restrictions have come off now, though international travel restrictions remain. And our IT team under CIO John Freshwater’s leadership has kept the technology running despite big bandwidth demands and even put new high-performance computing online.

I can’t sign off without acknowledging Lupe Carrillo and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team (DEI) who developed a robust and sensitive program of events, listening sessions, and web content in a tragic year that has required all our empathy and attention.

While Zoom meetings may be a millstone around the neck in some cases, in other ways they have helped achieve a level of focus that would have been impossible otherwise during a remote year. I refer in this case to the many meetings I have been personally involved in with faculty, staff, university leadership, and students regarding the new school. In some ways, the pandemic and Zoom have allowed a focus that enabled the myriad dialogs and planning sessions that have been necessary for an inclusive process. I have also been able to engage with many more of you and hear your voices directly in town halls and feedback sessions than was previously possible at the yearly live all-school meeting.

We are nearly through the tunnel. I thank each and every one of you for all you have done to keep yourself and the rest of us going. And I wish all our graduates the very best as they prepare for Commencement.

Stephan Graham

Patrick Archie teaching on the farm.
Patrick Archie teaching on the farm before the pandemic.

An active farm despite the pandemic

During the pandemic, the Stanford Educational Farm was briefly shuttered but reopened under limited guidelines. Over the year, among other activities, Farm Director Patrick Archie ran five hybrid online courses and supported 14 special projects involving 20 undergrads, 11 graduate students, and three professors. In one course, Patrick had students growing gardens and managing projects across the country. This spring he mounted a new Urban Agroecology course with 12 students. The farm also played a role in local food security.  Patrick and his team grew more than 10,000 vegetable seedlings in the farm's greenhouses in a collaboration with  Valley Verde, an organization works with low income and immigrant families to build backyard and community gardens. The seedlings to people at risk for food insecurity in the south bay. 

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