Friday, August 14, 2020

PASCO vs the Pandemic

I am sure everyone has a compelling narrative about how the COVID-19 pandemic upended their lives. This post is my story with an emphasis on how we responded at my company, PASCO scientific. One of our main responses was to create distance learning lab resources. They are described and linked to at the end of this post. Feel free to skip right to them. 

At the end of February my wife and I found ourselves at the Kaanapali Beach Hotel in Maui. We have been going there annually for the last 6 years for what used to be my ski week break. We used to go every few years and take our daughter and son. After they were out of high school their schedules didn't permit it. I remember telling them about our plans to go to Maui when they were in college. They replied, "but we don't get that week off anymore". We said "we know" with big smiles on our faces. We had a great week for what would be our last trip for many months. On our last day we went to nearby historic Lahaina. We went on a whale watch trip and walked up and down Front street. We were joined by hundreds of cruise ship passengers who were shuttled into town on small boats. We learned a week later that the name of the ship was the Grand Princess and it had passengers and crew infected with COVID-19. This was the ship that was stranded in San Francisco Bay for weeks as they tried to decide what to do with them.

Humpback whale spouts with the Grand Princess in the background

On our return we heard about the first known case of COVID-19 in the United States that was not due to travel. We were concerned because it was in nearby Sacramento. It also was troubling because the victim was not even given a test when they first went to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms. Still, this was just one case so we felt safe about our plans to attend the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play at the Curran theater in San Francisco. Our daughter is a big Harry Potter fan and this play was our birthday gift to her. We never considered not attending the play even after we learned that the cruise ship stranded in the Bay was the same one from Lahaina. We met our daughter, her boyfriend and two of her friends at the theater and had a great day. They were not concerned about COVID-19 but it did occupy a lot of our conversation. The coughing woman behind us caused some anxiety but no panic. The play is so long it is split into two parts with a long break in between. We had a nice dinner during the break at the San Francisco landmark, John's Grill. Little did we know that this would be our last large public gathering for many months.

One last large public gathering before the lock down, March 8 2020

Things happened fast at PASCO the next week. On March 9 all of our travel was cancelled. This included a trip to Qatar to conduct training and to Boston for NSTA. I was most disappointed about missing the Red Sox vs White Sox game at Fenway on April 4. That would be the first on a long list of disappointments that seem trivial compared to the hardship and suffering that would be inflicted on millions of others. On 3/11 my group, Curriculum and Professional Development, met to discuss how to respond to the developing crisis. Since preparing for Qatar and NSTA was on hold, we had time to do something for teachers who were quickly transitioning to remote teaching. We came up with a plan to create a distance learning page on our website. On it would be links to videos we would produce that would show us explaining and performing many labs that are typically done in a second semester physics, chemistry and biology class. We would post the data files and student handouts so students could perform the analysis. We also would post the teacher guide with sample analysis. We increased the trial period of PASCO Capstone and SPARKvue analysis software to 180 days. That extension continues so teachers wanting to use video analysis should check out PASCO Capstone. Additionally, we gave free access to our online textbooks, Essential Physics and Essential Chemistry. Now all we had to do was produce 21 physics, chemistry, and biology lab videos before PASCO had to shut its doors! That happened sooner than we thought. Placer County issued a shelter in place order effective on Friday, March 20. We succeeded with our goal, making and posting 21 distance learning labs with videos. We went into lock down knowing we had created something useful for teachers that were struggling to teach science online. The distance learning page is still active but the free access to Essential Physics and Essential Chemistry has ended. Here are the 10 physics labs that we posted. Make sure you log into your PASCO account to be able to access the teacher guide and data files.

We remained away from the PASCO office for a lot longer than the original 4/10 specified in the Placer County shelter in place order. We were instructed not to work but were paid our full salary until March 28. After that we could use paid time off or file for unemployment. I did the latter and found the online system worked pretty well. I never thought I would file for unemployment but since I had paid my taxes all those years, I went ahead and did it. My wife and I were thankful every day that we had recently moved from the Bay Area to a house on a lake near Auburn, California. The lake is like having a 240 acre back yard. I did a lot while in lock down, some of it even useful. Among my pandemic projects were a set of labs and videos experimenting with a chain on a pulley and a chain hitting the ground. I later used this work to create a talk for the virtual AAPT summer meeting. 

The view from our deck as mist rises from Lake of the Pines at sunrise

We remained in lock down until 5/4. At that point my group and a few other key personnel were allowed back into the office. I felt safe since there were few people there and we were spaced very far apart. We were scheduled to work a 4-day 32-hour week so no more unemployment. I was able to work at home but when you develop physics curriculum you need a lot of stuff and I missed my stuff! Over the next couple of weeks more people started coming in to the office with everyone back by 5/18. We also went back to a 40 hour week. Everyone wears a mask when away from their cubicle and meetings are on Zoom. Some employees are starting to work part-time at home to reduce the density at the office too. I still feel safe there.

I had a lot of things to work on but one was a collection of labs for two new products, the Physics Starter Lab Station and the Physics Extension Lab Station. These are bundled wireless sensors that come with a lab booklet, 10 labs for each station. There are chemistry lab stations , biology lab stations, elementary lab stations, middle school lab stations, and agricultural science lab stations too but I am going to focus on physics. We also committed to make a video for each of the labs in the Physics Starter Lab Station. This was an opportunity to make more distance learning labs. Originally we had wanted to make some for first semester topics but the lock down prevented that. Over the last couple of months I finished creating the labs and we made videos and posted data files for the labs listed below:

Position, Distance, and Displacement

Newton's Second Law

Designing and Testing Crash Cushions

Impulse and Change in Velocity

Change in Kinetic Energy

Rotational Collisions 

We plan to make more of these but they are on hold because of our new project called PASCO Academy. It was inspired by the popularity of the distance learning videos but motivated by the need to create something that will bring in revenue. Schools, teachers, and home schoolers that subscribe to PASCO Academy will get access to 15 weeks of a lab video program, access to our online textbooks, and unlimited license to SPARKvue software. The lab program will consist of a teacher preparation video, a lab overview and data collection video for students, and a follow up analysis and discussion video for students. The labs will all come from the Essential Physics or Essential Chemistry online textbooks that are targeted at a regular to honors level class. My colleague JJ Plank and I are in charge of the physics PASCO Academy. If you found the distance learning video labs useful I suggest you check it out.

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