Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of posts in which past LEAP Action Grant recipients report on their projects. Application for 2022 awards are due April 4, and can be submitted through the CTLL awards portal: https://ung.edu/academic-engagement/for-faculty-staff/leap/index.php.
Alex Olvido is an associate professor of biology.

My 2020 LEAP Action Grant still proves to be quite the roller-coaster ride: Thrilling on the climb, scream-worthy going down, and dizzying through the blind twists and turns.

No doubt, asking for money to reinvigorate one’s teaching is a pure act of faith. I say this based on nearly 20 years of witnessing declining enrollment in biology programs here and at other institutions. Moreover, several years had passed since my last funded project, and there was no guarantee I could write another winning proposal. My supportive Oconee colleagues (shout out to Dan “Da Man” Cabaniss) supplied the much-needed encouragement to clarify why and how a study of standing trees could promote deep learning in non-STEM students who take my “Introduction to Ecology” courses. News of having won a LEAP Action Grant certainly helped reaffirm the relevance of the science I wanted to teach.

A few weeks later, COVID-19 landed. Any good scientist can appreciate the importance of minimizing confounding variables in an experiment.  But my proposed project could not account for the sudden change of instructional modality, never mind the (new) social distancing rules. So, even though I eventually received a classroom set of six clinometers that were bought with LEAP funds, I could not follow through on my proposed measurement of learning gains in my ecology lab courses in the proposed time. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” perfectly captured my dejection in realizing I would not complete a proposed project during an award period — a first for me.

Just as social distancing rules seemed progressively relaxing, COVID-delta and then omicron arrived. The only difference in effect between these variants and COVID-19 was that I had already adopted a routine austerity and mindset for masking up and social distancing for myself. Of course, getting fully vaccinated and boosted has made me less anxious in chatting with my students face-to-face. But the thought of another year without making headway in my LEAP project just makes me sad: Not knowing the risk of pandemic spread among my students, I cannot in good conscience encourage them to work closely together in using equipment bought with LEAP funds, at least not yet.

When and where this current ride stops is anyone’s guess. The ultimate goal for this LEAP project was and still is a peer-reviewed publication. That’s going to take a large (enough) dataset to enable valid statistical arguments of positive learning gains. I look forward to the day when COVID infection fades into the background of seasonal colds and flu. In the meantime, I’ll just go where the ride takes me.