Yale leaders talk about COVID-19: Jeff Brock, dean of the School of Engineering & Applied Science and FAS dean of science

Jeffrey Brock
Jeffrey Brock

This is part of a running series.

How is the School of Engineering & Applied Science (SEAS) responding to the COVID-19 crisis?

Our community faces a challenge unlike any we have seen in our lifetimes. Institutions like Yale are lucky to be strong enough to absorb and manage the blow to some extent, but it is a challenge for everyone. Without a doubt, the situation has brought out the best in the SEAS community — creativity, the innovative spirit, a roll-up-your-sleeves approach to urgent problem-solving for the common good — and I’ve been really impressed with our people and their resilience.

When the reality of a pandemic began to set in, SEAS faculty and staff mobilized quickly: Within hours of the announcement of online classes, we were working with Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning to develop online lab modules for our lab courses. In parallel, we jumped in to start addressing local shortages of medical equipment such as masks, respirators, and other personal protective equipment, as well as new methods for “multiplexing” ventilators so our doctors can serve more of the sickest patients. We’ve kept in close contact with our community partners as these efforts have developed, forging new and deeper connections with the medical school, Yale New Haven Hospital, and local industries to ramp up prototype production. This is urgent work, and it’s been gratifying to be part of it. It’s a credit to our organization and its tireless staff that we’ve been able move quickly and effectively.

You also serve as dean of science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. How are the science departments responding? 

Here again, the resourcefulness and resolve of the faculty, staff, and students has been humbling and inspiring. Our faculty’s focus, first and foremost, has been the safety of our students and staff. They immediately understood the need for social distancing and for minimizing incidental contact. When we took the aggressive move to ramp down labs to critical research operations, there was a sense of solidarity, common purpose and an all-hands approach to solving the problem. In a Herculean effort, professors in lab-intensive disciplines recorded demonstrations for teaching lab courses online, and developed online modules; I’ve been deeply impressed with the ingenuity of our instructors in pulling this off. Our critical COVID-19 research continues, and we’re pushing hard to understand the science and measure the spread of this dangerous pathogen. And for those faculty, postdocs, and students who have necessarily paused their normal lab work, we have ramped up opportunities for data analysis and idea generation through an upcoming data science symposium and a series of hackathons.

You’re also a mathematics professor. How can mathematics help us?

As someone who has spent a great deal of time conveying the concepts of calculus in the classroom, I have been impressed to hear terms like “exponential growth” or “inflection point” become part of our daily conversations. Math professors suddenly have a new and resounding answer to the question: “Why do we need to know this?” The need to flatten the curve is an important and fundamental mathematical object lesson: Watching this curve change with the reproduction number R0, or the number of people each infected person infects, powerfully demonstrates the need for social distancing to attain this goal. The need to cultivate deeper mathematical fluency has never been more of an obvious, life-or-death proposition, at least in my lifetime. 

The pandemic has also reaffirmed for all of us on the faculty the value of our practice as teachers, and the joy of our connection with students. This moment in history has required a deep creativity and flexibility to reinvent the way we teach and learn: it has forced us to reexamine what we’ve always done and how we’ve done it. Through that process we’re generating bold new ideas that will reanimate the classroom when we return to the tactile rhythms of chalk on the chalkboard and the joyful commotion of the lecture hall. In whatever forms they take, teaching and learning are our sustaining creative acts.
 

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