COVID-19 response grants awarded for innovative research related to pandemic

Contact: Erin Flynn
A person in a surgical mask holds a light bulb.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—The University's Office of Research and Innovation has awarded five grants for research related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The projects cover a diverse field of study, from religion to education and language support.

"Our guiding principle was to advance excellence in the pursuit of knowledge and ideas to help tackle COVID-19-related issues," says Dr. Terri Goss Kinzy, vice president for research and innovation. "We think it's going to be a major contribution from Western Michigan University to the nation's response."

Totaling $31,620, the grants are funded by the Meader Presidential Endowment—a fund specifically designated for promoting excellence at WMU. A committee within the Office of Research and Innovation selected the winning projects from 35 proposals submitted by the campus community, looking for projects that had a broad impact, were collaborative in nature and could begin immediately in a remote capacity.

"They leveraged a unique expertise of WMU and were different than what many other universities are doing in this crisis," Goss Kinzy says. "We appreciated those that specifically engaged students in the work. We also looked for those that had a strong research plan."

The awards are not designed to be an exhaustive list of pandemic-related research at the University, rather a spark to ignite new ideas. Faculty and staff members who did not receive grants are encouraged to explore other internal programs and external funding opportunities. Information on those opportunities is available on the Office of Research and Innovation's COVID-19 webpage, along with a number of helpful resources for researchers.

The Projects

Factors motivating shelter-in-place orders; Drs. Matthew Mingus and Kevin Corder

Response to the pandemic by governors has varied across the United States. Mingus and Corder are analyzing the political decision-making by leaders in all 50 states to determine what factors led to issuing shelter in place orders—SIPOs. Working across two academic departments, they are also examining how SIPOs were similar and different, as well as the public rationale used to support issuing, or choosing not to issue, such executive orders. The research results will provide important insight about emergency management and public governance in the initial pandemic response, and may provide timely information in the event of significant second or third waves of COVID-19.

Development of low-cost respiratory monitoring device; Dr. Alessander Santos

COVID-19 primarily affects the respiratory system and potentially causes long-term respiratory impairments—some of which are still likely to be discovered. Instrumented spirometry is currently considered the best measure of pulmonary performance, but technology can be expensive. In order to reduce costs, Santos proposes developing a compact spirometer—a device that measures the air capacity of the lungs—for a fraction of the current price that could improve access to long-term care and reduce the number of fatalities related to long-term effects of the disease.

Pandemic response and religion; Drs. Stephen Covell and Diane Riggs

Religious organizations have been on the front lines of pandemic response, organizing food drives, participating in protests and adapting end-of-life services. Covell and Riggs hope to compile a global database of response in the United States and lay the groundwork for further research that could guide religious organizations and policy makers toward more effective disaster responses in the future. The research will also generate material for a new course at WMU and teach others in the field how to incorporate the material into their classes.

Accreditation and the future of higher learning; Dr. James Cousins

The rapid move to online education in higher education could have significant downstream effects, not only for educational environments, but also to standards of instruction. Cousins will develop a composite picture of national trends shaping how accreditors adjust their models of assessment and prepare the groundwork for a more comprehensive study of the implications of the changes for students, local communities, society and higher education as a whole.

Providing support for English learners; Dr. Selena Protacio

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended in-person instruction for K-12 students, leading to a challenging transition to online education for many—especially vulnerable populations like English learners. Protacio's project will focus on a rural school district where 1 in 5 students is an English learner and access to computers and tablets, or even internet service, is sometimes difficult to come by. She'll provide voice recorders for all students in need so that teachers can record instructions and drop them off with standard work packets every week—increasing participation as well as academic and language proficiency. The results of this study will be used to assess the ability to use affordable technology alternatives.

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