#IntheKNOW Live Chat: Dr. Maria Boccalandro

Opportunities and Challenges While Teaching and Learning Remotely

 

On June 5th, Dr. Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College), joined the National Council for Science and the Environment Knowledge Network for One World (KNOW) community for a live discussion in NCSE’s Slack workspace for our first ever #IntheKNOW Live Chat.

 

Dr. Maria Baccalandro

 

Dr. Maria Boccalandro, is an identical twin, originally from Caracas, Venezuela. She is now a U.S. citizen living in Dallas, Texas, and her twin works as an organic hemp farmer in Fort Collins, CO. Maria works for Dallas College, which serves over 80,000 students per semester. As the Sustainability and Advancement Director, she teaches innovative classes about sustainability and works with faculty to incorporate sustainability into their curricula.

Maria’s recent interview with NCSE Science Engagement Intern, Jack Carew, highlighted best practices she has learned while teaching remotely. As many students in her district, and around the world, are facing challenges such as economic hardship, health concerns, and lack of access to childcare and technology, Maria shared some of the ways her district has focused on meeting students’ needs to support them and their education. Below is the edited transcript of the interview:

 

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

Welcome Maria and thank you for joining us today! I’d now like to begin with a few questions to get to know you a little better and learn about your important work.

Could you give us an idea of your day-to-day responsibilities? What types of projects, programs, or courses do you work with?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)garden

I am in charge of working with students and faculty to incorporate sustainability principles in the curricula. This is a fun job because depending on the course we plant organic vegetables, we cook with the sun, or mentor the student’s Green Club.

Right now I am working on a cool project that I think is very pertinent with all the violence that has been going on in our country. We want to create a LOVE Garden on each of our locations. This will be a place to exercise and experience social justice, where the community will work in the garden with law enforcement agents. This idea is based on A.J. Ali’s movie and book “LOVE is the answer. LOVE stands for:

  • LEARN about the people in my community, to unconditionally
  • OPEN my heart to their needs as if they were all immediate family members, to
  • VOLUNTEER to be part of the solution in their life during both good and challenging times, and to
  • EMPOWER everyone I meet to do the same as if our lives depended on each other. 

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern  

Wow, Maria, that is so fascinating. I will certainly add A.J. Ali’s book to my list of books to read over this long socially-distant summer we are having!

Can you tell us a little about the students at Cedar Valley College? What challenges have they faced during the COVID-19 pandemic?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

We serve predominantly African American and Hispanic students. We are located in southern Dallas County and many of our students have challenges with mobility, food security and affordable housing. As 100% of the classes went online because of COVID19, we had a lot of students that didn’t have the technology or Internet to study. Our district provided tablets with hotspots for those who needed them. With the shelter in place some students lost their jobs and then their homes. One of my students had to move to a shelter.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

Those sound like acute challenges that are being faced by many across the country, and world right now. It is all the more important that there be innovative solutions addressing these issues.

What have been some of your personal challenges during the pandemic? What innovations or successes have you experienced?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

Yes, my day–to-day has changed a lot because now I don’t commute 70 miles a day. This took up 10 hours of my time a week and now I invest this time in my health and family. I love that we have family lunches, as we used to have in Venezuela.

I actually think I work harder and longer; some days I have online meetings all day. We have had to develop activities to do at home with our student’s Green Club. I also got to work with student interns at two of our sister colleges: North Lake and Brookhaven and they developed a sustainability newsletter that is great and reaches a lot of people that if we held an event on our campus many might not be able to come!

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

That’s so interesting. In spite of the geographical and movement restrictions wrought by the pandemic, you’ve been able to expand your reach through the sustainability newsletter.

What types of changes have instructors at Cedar Valley College had to make to ensure the success of their students?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

I am also a part-time instructor and my course was an online class, but I had to be more flexible with the due dates. I had some extreme cases and, like a student who lost her home because she lost her job or another student whose mother had been hospitalized because of being sick with COVID-19 and he had been sent to a family member's house. Both had problems getting on a computer to do their assignments. I worked with them, giving them more time for the assignments and guiding them to other resources that could support them in this crisis.

Here is a resource page we are providing- Dallas County Community College Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information for the DCCCD Community.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

Your students are lucky to have you supporting them. You also mentioned that the district helped by providing ipads to students, have they been able to support you and your students in other ways too?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

Yes, there is financial aid with a new emergency fund, counseling, online tutoring, mentoring, etc.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

Do you think that the students who have been most impacted by the pandemic and have utilized the increased access (hotspots, tablets, etc.) provided by DCCCD will be able to sustain engagement as students during this uncertain time, particularly if things continue to be uncertain this fall? Is there any way that the NCSE community can help?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

Great question.Our average age of students is 27 years, these students are facing many challenges and keeping them engaged is very hard. Some have several children at home, etc. I think we need to provide wrap around services to help them focus on school.

Our students have many challenges, for example I had a student drop out of class and not work as an intern because his car broke down and there is no efficient public transportation. This student needed an emergency fund to fix his car. We need to meet the students where they are to support them.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

I can imagine that your students were very appreciative of your flexibility and support during such an uncertain time. What job skills are even more important now in a post-COVID-19 world?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

I think we all get to put in our title the word “digital”. For example, I am now the Digital Director of Sustainability and Programs! It seems paradoxical but even though we are relying a lot on technology we also need better people skills. We need to be able to understand where others are coming from, what are they experiencing, how we can make a difference.

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

How will sustainability as a field change/ how is it changing during the COVID-19 pandemic?

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

I want to emphasize that COVID-19 is a very critical and sad health problem, but we can’t deny that with less commuting we have less pollution. Also I have been asking our facilities personnel to track how much we are saving in utilities, while everyone is working and studying from home. This has a big impact on our carbon footprint. The question is as we all go back to our activities can we use less utilities and be more mindful of our carbon footprint?

 

Jack Carew, NCSE Science Engagement Intern 

How have sustainability initiatives you organize locally in Dallas changed during the pandemic?

 

 Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

This is a great question, because most of our sustainability awareness events were hands-on activities, which aren’t possible now. We have been informed that our fall classes will be 100% online. I am working with my colleagues to design activities that can be done at home without overburdening the students. My colleague Brandon Morton organized a plant growing competition. My colleague Dr. Kara Casey developed and delivered an online webinar to grow your own food at home. For the celebration of Earth Day we hosted a movie using Team and then the students played Kahoot and the winner got an e-gift card sent to their email. I need more ideas, does anybody have any good ideas to improve student engagement? 

 

*Readers may share ideas for improving student engagement in the #resources-remote-learning-during-covid-19 channel of the NCSE KNOW Community Slack Workspace. 

 

Maria Boccalandro, Sustainability and Advancement Director at Cedar Valley College (Dallas College)

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Overall, a higher education campus is a small city. We have to make our campus resilient. This means asking what strengths and weaknesses do we have? What threats and opportunities do we have? And how can we be prepared for disruptions? The students can be part of a living lab experience that enhances their learning outside the classroom. This COVID-19 crisis caught us all off guard. How can we be better prepared for the next disruption?

The skills of critical thinking, communication, teamwork, social and personal responsibility are in our student learning outcomes, why don’t we put our students to work in being more resilient? In the case of community colleges our students belong to the community we serve. This means that as these students help our colleges to be more resilient, they can also do it for their communities.

Our mission at Cedar Valley College is: “To transform lives through teaching and learning for every student, every place and every time.”