By Adam Fisher

As the University of Michigan gears up toward a public health-informed return-to-campus, the College of Engineering is working to alleviate unanticipated financial needs of its students, deploying tools to track COVID-19 in Michigan, and engaging students toward multidisciplinary solutions.

An Emergency Fund Supporting an Unprecedented Shift

The College of Engineering recently directed an emergency fund to assist students dealing with unexpected problems caused or worsened by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic — from food insecurity to unexpected travel costs. Its Office of Student Affairs, which runs the Engineering Student Emergency Fund, has reached out to all 11,000 engineering students.

Additionally, results from a survey on the transition to virtual learning have been critical. Fifty-seven percent of student participants responded in a positive way, but more than eleven percent answered, “I’m barely getting by.”

The fund has been accepting donations and dispersing funds to those in need since April. To date, it has taken in nearly $145,000.

A Multidisciplinary-Informed Tool for Tracking COVID-19 in Michigan

Under the guidance of College of Engineering and School of Public Health faculty, U-M students developed an online tool to help Michigan residents track potential COVID-19 symptoms, enabling state officials and employers to make the right call about reopening workplaces during the pandemic. Called MI Symptoms, the web application plugs in to a broader effort at U-M to help the state safely ramp its economy up by surveying employees with a standard, recurring wellness check.

Developers from the College of Engineering collaborated with more than 80 staff, faculty, and students from the School of Public Health and School of Information to build a tool that asked the right questions. Among the web application’s key audiences are employers who will need to make sure they’re correctly following state guidelines as businesses start to bring workers back to physical workplaces.

The aggregate data gathered by the tool can help state officials identify emerging hot spots and make high-level decisions about state reopening policies. The MI Symptoms app is part of a broader effort involving a team of experts from the School of Public Health who have been working closely with state leaders to provide expertise on safely reopening and controlling the spread of the coronavirus in Michigan.

Student Teams Rise to the Challenge

Eighty-nine student teams from across campus, comprising more than six hundred students, submitted proposals for the COVID-19 Campus Challenge, a U-M effort to generate ideas for how best to adapt to physical distancing during the upcoming semester.

Proposals spanned six categories, chosen for their potential to support a successful public health-informed in-residence semester that includes a mixture of in-person and remote classes. Categories included: housing, transportation, food insecurity, co-curricular activities, diversity, equity & inclusion, and mental health.

Among the proposals:

  • Masks of Michigan, which promotes the wearing of face masks at U-M through a student-centric social media campaign.
  • A friend-matching system inspired by the popular student-made dating survey Michigan Marriage Pact — designed to help students connect with each other at a time when they’re less likely to make new friends serendipitously in person.
  • BlueTrace, a QR-code enabled app to track campus bus occupancy and contact tracing.
  • A DEI approach highlighting that nearly nine percent of students lack health insurance and that a disproportionate number are Black or Hispanic. The proposal calls for a three-tiered approach to making sure these students don’t face expensive out-of-network fees. While COVID tests are free, surrounding doctor’s office visits aren’t.

Reopening Research

In late May, the College of Engineering labs began ramping back up in phases after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s announcement that in-person lab research could resume with strict limitations based on public health guidance. Now, anyone entering a building must pass a health screening that involves a temperature check and a series of questions. Once inside, they must wear masks, disinfect high-touch surfaces in labs multiple times a day, and stay six feet from others, among other precautions.

The Michigan Engineer News Center profiles how the Optoelectronic Components and Materials Group, the Environmental Biotechnology Group, and the Biped Robotics Lab are moving towards normalcy, and looking to take available public health measures.

An engineer, wearing a face covering, works on CASSIE the robot

IMAGE: Yukai Gong, Robotics PhD Student, installs a battery into Cassie, a bipedal robot, as Jessy Grizzle, Director of the Robotics Institute, looks on in their lab on North Campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, MI on May 26, 2020. Photo: Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering