LOGAN — Utah State University’s mathematicians, statisticians and data scientists faced a problem. But these folks tackle challenges every day and a daunting obstacle called a ‘global pandemic’ wasn’t about to harsh their groove.
“It’s a tradition in our department to hold an annual banquet to honor our students, faculty and staff,” says Jim Powell, head of USU’s Department of Mathematics and Statistics.
When state guidelines in mid-March mandated safety changes, Powell and his colleagues scrambled to move face-to-face classes to remote delivery. Planning of the annual banquet was pushed to the bottom of the list.
“As we considered a celebration, we initially thought we’d have to cancel it,” Powell says. But as the team discussed it, different members kept offering creative solutions, he says.
“We have so many outstanding people and, this year in particular, our students and faculty received top college and university honors,” Powell says. “Plus, our people were putting tremendous effort and hours into making remote delivery of classes, tutoring, advising, research and all the other things we do, work.”
The kicker, though, was hearing about how spatial distancing (that’s ‘spatial,’ not ‘social,’ by the way – mathematicians are precise) was affecting the department’s students, faculty and staff.
“Over and over again, I heard how people felt lonely and isolated,” Powell says. “Especially some of our international scholars, who are far from family and have no deep roots in our community.”
Holding a banquet – a virtual banquet – moved to the top of the heap of priorities.
“So, we began brainstorming how to pull it off,” Powell says. “I thought the hardest part would be delivering food to well over 100 people at different locations.”
The department’s business assistant Kelly Seipert, however, handled the challenge with dispatch.
“Kelly, with her consistent common sense and steady enthusiasm, didn’t break a sweat,” Powell says. “She began researching caterers, organized an RSVP system and set plans in motion.”
Powell turned his attention to the virtual ceremony.
“We have an amazing technical team,” he says. “Our network administrators Karl Dyches and Isabel Jenson set up a Webex video meeting and put together a beautiful PowerPoint awards presentation. I’ve never been a video host, but my leadership team stepped up to help me.”
The result was an afternoon celebration, held May 1, enjoyed by all.
“With the ability for all participants to type in online comments, it was actually more participatory than our in-person gatherings,” Powell says. “It was very touching to read the accolades people wrote to one another.”
He also praises Iron Gate Catering, which whipped up nearly 200 sandwiches and, enlisting a team of five drivers, delivered meals to banquet guests residing throughout Cache Valley, within an hour and a half.
“It was an exceptional undertaking for an exceptional department,” Powell says.
He notes the department’s 30 faculty members provide classes for thousands of USU students on Logan’s main campus and throughout the university’s distance campuses each year. In addition, the department’s newly re-vamped Aggie Math Learning Center is providing tutoring and learning services – now, remotely – to Utah State University students of all majors.
“Most USU students take math,” Powell says. “From the most basic classes to advanced courses.”
On top of this, USU mathematicians, statisticians and data scientists conduct world-class research and participate in collaborations with other researchers in every discipline throughout the university.
“At this time, more than ever, it’s a time to recognize and celebrate our department,” Powell says.
Graduate student Joanna Coltrin, who was among the revelers, says she’s grateful she was able to enjoy a virtual ceremony.
“It makes me feel like our department cares about us students and that amidst the changes we are experiencing as a society, we can still celebrate successes and achievements,” she says.