April 15, 2021 | By John Perney
For members of the Albion College community over the last three decades, there is one Thursday in mid- to late April that always stands out with a certain Briton pride.
It almost has a holiday feel to it, and indeed many classes don’t meet. Rather, on this day most classroom learning happens in four Norris Center spaces and the Science Complex atrium in morning and afternoon sessions, as students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends come together for the annual Elkin R. Isaac Student Research Symposium.
The key words in that last sentence are “come together,” for it is most definitely a recognition and celebration of academic achievement. The Honors Convocation in between Symposium sessions adds traditional elements of pomp and regalia to the day as well.
That coming together, though, has often felt quite literal: attendees packing Norris 100, 101, 102 and 104; the shuffling of “room surfers” in the brief minute or two in between each 15-minute student presentation; congregations around research posters in the atrium. With a pandemic still upon us, those scenes remain not possible.
In 2020, COVID-19’s early weeks cancelled the Symposium. But not this year.
“Although it’s challenging now, I think this could be the start of a whole new Isaac,” said Jill Marie Mason, ’01, associate director of the library, head of library systems and technology, and director of the Isaac Symposium Committee. She is referring to the completely virtual format of this year’s event—from the presentations and posters to the questions from audience members.
It will all happen through a web-software platform called, appropriately enough, Symposium, which will offer a staging area for the virtual event. Consider it this year’s Norris Center lobby. From that “lobby,” visitors can view the presentation schedule, read student research abstracts and enter any of up to four rooms, or forums, that are simultaneously featuring either student platform presentations or poster presentation Q&As. Most of the presentations will be live, while a few will be prerecorded due to varying complexities.
Entering a forum puts the visitor into a Google Meet that can accommodate up to 250 people. Each 15-minute time block (generally 12 minutes for an actual platform presentation and three minutes for audience Q&A) will be recorded and available for later viewing. Each forum also will include two moderators to ensure things run smoothly.
“We identified several platforms, but this one has been designed specifically for this purpose and has been used by colleges and universities across the country,” Mason said, adding that the Isaac Committee has known since last fall that, realistically, the 2021 Symposium could only be a virtual experience. Even so, a challenge persisted: “How can you translate this event that has traditionally been similar year after year,” Mason said, “and make it into this virtual format, and keep it personal and engaging? I think, overall, it’s gone pretty smoothly.”
Along with the other presenters, Lauren Bergeron, ’22, and Akaiia Ridley, ’22, have had to complete their prep work sooner than students from years past to accommodate the rollout of the Symposium staging platform. On top of that, they have had to do it during this year’s module-based academic calendar, which has compressed coursework and altered typical routines for both students and their faculty sponsors.
“This is my first time participating in Elkin Isaac, and I am working hard on my presentation to make sure that I keep the audience engaged. I know how hard it is to look at computer screens for long periods of time,” said Ridley, a history major from Albion who will present “Black Teachers Matter—the Story of Albion Public Schools Going South to Historically Black Colleges and Universities to Create a Teaching Faculty That Looks Like Its Students.”
“I am very passionate about my topic and even more enthused to share what I have come up with during my research time,” she added. “For me, the work is only the beginning. I hope that I have the opportunity to continue to add more stories to the ones I have now.”
During her time at Albion, Bergeron, a history and geology major from Riverview, Mich., has refined her topic, “‛This Insolent and Inhuman Race’: White U.S. Soldiers’ Thoughts About White Southerners During the Civil War.” She was all set to present last year, both at the Isaac Symposium and at two events in and around the nation’s capital recognizing top undergraduate research from across the U.S. Of course, that trip unfortunately didn’t happen.
“But now having the opportunity to share this information, it’s great to have the experience,” said Bergeron, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. and is interested in becoming a museum curator. “After each presentation I’m gaining more skills, learning more about the project and learning more about myself.”
Mike Van Houten, library co-director, has watched the Isaac Symposium grow and evolve in the 30 years he has been associated with it. In fact, he has led much of that growth, from a handful of science-focused presentations in 1990 to the event Brits have come to know in the 21st century: a robust showcase featuring students across all majors. The event also has regularly included an alumni lecture and a keynote address that has brought to campus world-renowned scientists, artists, leaders and experts.
While this year’s new virtual Symposium includes neither element, Van Houten knows it’s just a temporary thing amid a unique time for all.
“That’s one of the things we specifically wanted to achieve,” he said, reflecting on the Isaac Alumni Lecture in particular. “We wanted to have alumni who presented when they were here as students to tell us about the amazing things they are doing now.”
After 41 years of service to Albion College, Van Houten is retiring in May, putting this year’s event, for him, into sharper perspective.
“We may find that, long-term, we want a virtual aspect, so that families that can’t travel can still participate,” he said. “We don’t want to lose the face-to-face of it, but if we can make it more accessible, that would be good.
“This has been one of my favorite things I’ve done on campus this whole time,” Van Houten added. “I love the Symposium and what it represents. It’s been amazing to see the growth.”