Looking back on Penn State Outreach’s COVID-19 response

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Penn State Outreach made a number of updates and accommodations to enhance programming in support of our constituents.

Conferences and Institutes

Conferences and Institutes worked with faculty, chairs, and clients to transform on-site programming to online delivery, using the hybrid on-site/online format of the fall 2019 Research to Action: The Science of Drawdown as a model.

To ensure that critical information reached parents, caregivers, and professionals and that students gained valuable experiences outside the classroom, the National Autism Conference transformed into a robust online experience. The 53rd Annual Comprehensive Short Course in Rotary Wing Technology was also offered in an online format.

While in-person camps were not offered, there was an abundance of virtual youth offerings, including Advanced Weather Camp for budding meteorologists and Architecture Camp for our future designers. The Summer Theatre Artistic Training Experience (S.T.A.T.E.) Musical Theatre Intensive was adapted into an interactive virtual camp in June 2020, featuring daily dance, voice, and acting classes. The Summer Academy for the Blind and Visually Impaired helped to prepare students to navigate the college environment and included introductions and training in assistive technologies.

Several spring for-credit course offerings were converted to virtual experiences, including the Leadership Principles course trip to Textron, which was modified to include online presentations by students to Textron engineers, a virtual tour, and a keynote address from the Textron CEO, Scott Donnelly. The Observation or Experience with Children, Youth, and Families course offered students Better Kid Care online training modules through Penn State Extension in lieu of their canceled trip. 

Summer courses were also offered virtually including the Philadelphia Urban Education Seminar, Geosciences Field Camp, and the Summer Language Institute at Penn State.

Our Outreach teams reached for excellence as they fulfilled the mission of their specific unit. They have shown resiliency, creativity, tenacity, and commitment through cancellations and altering of programming to provide it virtually. They are an exceptional team with an exceptional commitment to engage our learners, faculty, and community members.

—Pamela Driftmier, Executive Director, Professional and Community Engagement

Justice and Safety Institute 

The Penn State Justice and Safety Institute (JASI) transitioned Criminal Justice Professional Training online so that police, corrections, and parole officers could continue to better serve their communities through enhancing their skills and knowledge. Grant Writing was the first course transitioned from face-to-face delivery to online delivery. 

The Pennsylvania Child Support Enrollment Training Institute (PACSETI) — a partnership with the Bureau of Child Support Enforcement (BCSE) and the Domestic Relations Association of Pennsylvania (DRAP) — delivered their training remotely and online to all Child Support Enforcement Officers (2,500+) statewide.

Nittany AI Alliance 

The Nittany AI Challenge transitioned completely online, with 80 students representing 20 teams finalizing prototypes from their homes and presenting their prototypes to judges at a distance. 

The Nittany AI Associates program continued to employ and support more than 10 student interns who worked remotely. One team of students focused on forecasting the proportion of existing jobs in the area served by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) that had a high probability of permanently converting to telework. This could help inform future transit routes and schedules.

The Nittany AI Alliance team adapted quickly to the disruption caused by COVID-19 to ensure continued student participation in all of our programs. For example, the Nittany AI Challenge modified prototype review processes to enable virtual judging and prototype evaluations of the participating student teams.

The Nittany AI Associates transitioned to a fully virtual operation to ensure projects were completed and that student internships remained available for the summer. Our students quickly adapted to working remotely to complete their projects in both programs while scattered around the globe. I am grateful for such exceptional colleagues and amazing students.

—Daren Coudriet, Executive Director of Innovation, Penn State Outreach; Executive Director, Nittany AI Alliance

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

In order to engage members in online lifelong learning and social connectivity, OLLI conducted Zoom training sessions for members to familiarize them with the technology. OLLI continues to offer opportunities for members to practice using the tool, so they are more confident and prepared to actively engage in online activities.

A new program called OLLI Connects was created to help members stay in contact with each other and provided a chance for social interaction for members who may have been isolated and alone in their homes. OLLI University Park (UP) offered a weekly Zoom social hour which doubled as a hands-on training opportunity, while OLLI York instituted a phone tree for members to check in with other members who may not have computer or internet access. 

Using Zoom, OLLI held a participant-led discussion of a Ted Talk video and launched full online courses. OLLI staff worked with existing instructors and University partners to convert their presentation style and spring programs to an online format. 

OLLI UP and OLLI York created Facebook posts that were designed to engage members and share free resources during social distancing. OLLI UP sent two emails per week highlighting the online course schedule, partner news, and links to free resources. OLLI York sent daily emails with links to free resources as well as a bi-weekly newsletter.

OLLI continued to find new opportunities for engagement while social distancing. 

Penn State Center Philadelphia

Penn State Center Philadelphia collaborated on a community outreach program to reach 500 Philadelphia community members and families with resources relating to employment, health, food, education, housing, utilities, and internet access during the pandemic. The Center also supported community partners to build capacity for virtual community engagement. 

The Center’s summer student internship program was held online, with many internships that directly addressed the impact of COVID-19 in various communities, including the immigrant population in the Philadelphia area.

Penn State faculty member and director of the Food Decisions Research Laboratory, Amit Sharma, worked with Penn State Center Philadelphia to recruit additional students to support research into Philadelphia’s rising food insecurity as a result of COVID-19. To further address the problem, the Center provided 200 free meals every weekday to Philadelphia families who were facing food insecurity because of COVID-19.

Penn State Center Pittsburgh 

When Penn State New Kensington professor Joan Kowalski was unable to bring her Foundations of Leadership in Sustainability class to Penn State Center Pittsburgh to learn how the 90-year-old former Connelley Trade School became the LEED Platinum Energy Innovation Center (EIC), the Center hosted her class via a virtual tour. Center staff held an in-depth two-hour Zoom presentation, remote tour, and discussion of the EIC.

For 11 semesters, landscape architecture professor Ken Tamminga’s Pittsburgh Studio has worked with the Center to offer students the experience of engaging with local stakeholders on place-based projects. Although typically conducted through in-person workshops and charettes, spring 2020’s mid-semester reviews and final projects were shared remotely with our partners in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood. 

Penn State Center Pittsburgh’s Community Innovation Training for Youth (CITY) after-school program shifted to delivering their hands-on learning to students at home through virtual sessions and online activities. The program director emailed students a weekly newsletter to keep them engaged and sent CITY stakeholders a newsletter to keep them informed of how the program was adapting to the COVID-19 crisis.

The City Semester Pittsburgh program is a semester-long learning experience where students typically live and work in Pittsburgh while taking classes to earn credits toward their degrees. For summer 2020, the Penn State Center Pittsburgh partnered with local businesses to offer virtual internships to City Semester students to satisfy the program’s requirements.

Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center

Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center used tools like Zoom and eBird to move the Migration Mornings and Birding Cup programs online to connect birders from all over the world. The 2020 Birding Cup was a great success, attracting 276 birders from the United States, Canada, Italy, Kenya, and Australia; ultimately raising more than $4,000. They also developed online educational resources through SEED Semester and Maple Harvest Festival student projects.

Shaver’s Creek also engaged the public during social distancing by encouraging participation in the NestWatch Citizen Science Project, sharing live raptor cams, and collaborating with a Penn State Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management instructor in a challenge to students to teach the world about their passions by creating and sharing videos on YouTube.

In accordance with the University’s decision to transition to remote learning, the Center quickly transitioned 30 spring semester courses online.      


WPSU provided a wealth of content to its audiences throughout Pennsylvania during the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to producing and distributing more than 100 original news stories related to the virus, they produced and live streamed many University town hall meetings and launched a coronavirus resource page.

WPSU streamed Penn State’s virtual graduation ceremonies in May 2020. 

WPSU-TV partnered with the Pennsylvania Department of Education to support students and educators with videos, lesson plans, and activities designed for at-home teaching and learning. They also produced a message of hope spot for underwriters and donors. 

WPSU Radio aired many broadcasts such as The Importance of Community During the Coronavirus Pandemic and Democracy Works: Free and Fair Elections During a Pandemic. They also aired The National Conversation With All Things Considered radio weeknights at 9:00 p.m. (ET) to answer questions from across the country about coronavirus.  

WPSU Radio also produced many coronavirus Health Minute broadcasts on the importance of handwashing, sleep and the immune system, social distancing, staying connected, and mental health during COVID-19

On Facebook, WPSU produced a first-person account of a State College resident diagnosed with COVID-19, shared PBS educational resources on the WPSU Learning Families page, and engaged the community through numerous social media campaigns like: “Show Us Your Mug,” #HowWeEndure, Teddy Bears and Rainbows, Meet the helpers, and Metronome from Home. 

WPSU’s mission to spark discovery, enrich learning, and strengthen community through vibrant public media is more important now than ever before. Our creative, talented employees have pulled together in a variety of meaningful ways to ensure we are meeting community needs while remaining flexible and resilient as conditions change. We are maintaining our broadcast operations as an essential PA business. We are continuing to report on radio the vital news and stories from across our region. We are streaming virtual events across our communities. And, we are working with the PA Department of Education to deliver educational programming mapped to grade levels and subject matter.

I am grateful for our teams’ ability to rise to this unprecedented occasion to fulfill our mission.

—Isabel Reinert, Executive Director and General Manager, WPSU

The video below shares details of many programs and successes of Penn State Outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic.