The front line

Mail clerk Jon Wing sorts parcels

Photo by Christopher Gannon.

Jon Wing (pictured), mail clerk in postal and parcel services, prepares outgoing parcels Monday morning. With lots of buildings locked for security while many employees work remotely, PPS staff still are servicing about 75% of campus buildings. And that takes care of more than 90% of campus and U.S. mail right now, according to PPS manager Bob Tott.

Mail volume has declined enough that Tott reassigned one of his six team members to assist with UPS and FedEx package handling and delivery at ISU's central receiving facility on East Lincoln Way.

"Our interface with logistics and support services is strong, so this is a win for both units," he said.

Instructors show their adaptability with online testing

Every test students take the remainder of spring semester has an extra question. The answer isn't found in any book or article, but is determined by how they arrive at the information to answer the other questions.

How to structure assessments and maintain academic integrity is one of the biggest challenges instructors and students face with online instruction in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Many instructors are adjusting the way they test students' knowledge, others are using technology to ensure rules are being followed, but for most, the answer lies with the students themselves.

"We really treat it as an opportunity for personal growth for our students," said associate professor of chemical and biological engineering and Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) faculty fellow Monica Lamm. "If we give them clear ground rules, what are they going to do, and how are they going to conduct themselves when no one is watching them?" 

Making adjustments

The move to online instruction is challenging because not every student has access to technology -- for example, high-speed internet or a computer in their home -- and that extends to testing.

"Students are not always as tech-savvy as we may think, so I have to provide more guidance and step-by-step instructions as much as possible," said associate professor of kinesiology Elizabeth Stegemoller. 

Most instructors give students more time to complete tests online and may set aside time to answer questions they have during the exam.

Genetics, development and cell biology associate teaching professor Sayali Kukday identified several areas she adjusted to benefit students while still maintaining firm expectations for results.

Before the online switch, Kukday allowed students two attempts at a test and the ability to go back to questions and change answers. Now, tests are open-book with one chance to take them, and once a student moves from one question to the next, their answer is locked in. 

Going to open-book testing has happened in courses across campus, but Kukday noticed scoring averages actually went down on the first attempt.

"I think the problem is students tend to think open-book means, 'Oh, I am not going to prepare, I am not going to study,'" she said. "They don't put the same time into preparing for it."

Thinking ahead

Lamm, who co-teaches her spring course with assistant teaching professor Karen Burt, provided reminders to students along with a study guide before a test to help them prepare and troubleshoot. It included:

  • Where will you work on the assessment?
  • What time will you start?
  • Allow enough time to upload your work.
  • Think about how you will uphold the idea of academic integrity.

They also compiled a list of what could and could not be used to take a test. To accommodate students with slow internet service, they gave the class 12 hours to complete the exam.

Music while miles apart

Testing students in the music department brings its own set of challenges. Unlike other departments, there was little online presence to build upon for virtual instruction.

"We had one or two classes with one format offered always being online," said professor of music and Faculty Senate president Jonathan Sturm. 

Sturm modified how he administers tests in Canvas. Each test comes in two versions -- Microsoft Word and a PDF -- allowing students with a stylus to write directly on the document while others type. It includes uploaded music examples for the students to listen to and answer more questions. 

"Some of the exam is the same as if it were face-to-face, but I am trying to do fewer of the multiple choice or quick answer, and I follow that with a more thoughtful question," Sturm said. "They have to explain the answer, and that would be impossible to do unless they know the answer."

New technology

Music faculty also are conducting music continuation exams and performance juries online, which required new technology to accommodate a wide range of needs.

Associate professor Sonja Giles said she uses multiple apps for specific online purposes. Giles and other faculty use Zoom or Webex and apps in Canvas for studios and juries, but three other apps meet other needs.

  • Flipgrid: Allows students to record themselves and send the file to their instructor with better audio quality than an app like FaceTime.
  • Acapella: For pieces of music that need accompaniment, this app allows students to record one part and play it back while they add the other(s).
  • Auralia: Ear-training app delivered through Canvas.

Continuation exams -- a milestone that must be passed in the late sophomore or early junior year to continue in a major -- will be adjusted from a live 40-minute examination to recordings of the required performances.

"They will record a video that includes a prepared repertoire, a self-prepared piece, and then do sight-singing or reading on the actual day of the exam during finals week," Sturm said. "We will give students an hour to download the sight-reading or singing, look at it, record it and submit it. A jury of faculty will then watch it."


With the university's online testing centers closed, instructors can use a lockdown browser in Canvas. It doesn't allow students to print, copy, visit other websites or access other applications until they submit their test. Respondus Monitor, a webcam feature enabled when the browser is locked, records students during online, nonproctored assessments.

CELT made instructors aware of Respondus Monitor but cautioned how and when they use it.

"It doesn't guarantee success, and it doesn't necessarily deter cheating," said CELT program coordinator Lesya Hassall. 

Stegemoller planned to use Respondus Monitor but had to adjust because of technology issues.

"A student emailed me five minutes before the exam to say they couldn't get their webcam to work, so I just went into my exam and took the webcam off. I don't want to create any more anxiety for them. I use it to set the bar that I expect academic integrity."


Stegemoller tries to honor accommodation requests whenever possible, but said there are limits to how far she can go for one student without putting the rest of the class at a disadvantage.

"I have learned you just have to let some things go," she said. "You can't control everything."

Being flexible and adjusting expectations on a case-by-case basis is important to overall student success, Kukday said. She stressed not drastically changing how a class is taught.

"I used active learning strategies in the class before we went online, and I continue to do that," she said. "You have to be consistent dealing the same level of complexity from before to after moving online."

Stegemoller said acting with grace and understanding can be beneficial to students -- but also is something instructors should apply to themselves.

"Professors and teachers are very perfectionistic in their approach," she said. "At this point, give yourself a little bit of grace. Get students the information you want them to learn and if it is not perfect, it is OK."

CIRAS helping Iowa's factory lines shift to protect front-line workers


An employee of The Dimensional Group working on face shields at the company's Mason City plant April 15. The manufacturer began making the needed safety item last week after encouragement from Iowa State's Center for Industrial Research and Service. Contributed photo.

Many health care facilities are concerned about obtaining critical supplies, while orders for other goods are slowing down if not drying up. The pair of common coronavirus supply-and-demand issues suggests an easier-said-than-done answer: retool production lines to make what the health care industry and governments are desperate to buy.

ISU's Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS) has been helping Iowa manufacturers go from said to done faster during the COVID-19 crisis, getting needed protection to health and safety workers while also protecting manufacturing jobs threatened by a severe slowdown. And reconfiguring factories to make front-line workers safer is just one of the ways CIRAS is supporting Iowa businesses in challenging conditions.

"Since we enacted our industry emergency management team Feb. 13, we’ve been working in a wide variety of areas of interest to Iowa businesses, like global shipping, decontamination of N95 masks, supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), changing HR policies and understanding the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, to name a few," CIRAS director Ron Cox said.

Overwhelming response

CIRAS is part of the College of Engineering and the office of economic development and industry relations, headquartered in the Economic Development Core Facility in the ISU Research Park though more than half of its 40-person staff is spread throughout the state. It offers a wide range of services for solving technical and strategic problems, connects companies with university expertise and resources, hosts statewide workshops, and administers several state and federal business development programs. It has contact, often in intensive ways, with about 1,700 Iowa businesses per year, with an emphasis on manufacturing.

Those relationships allowed CIRAS staff to quickly react when it heard from state officials March 27 about the expected shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in Iowa, including more than 500,000 each of plastic face shields, masks and cotton gowns. Only existing manufacturers would be able to provide that volume, said Mike O'Donnell, CIRAS manufacturing program director. CIRAS staff began calling companies that could help.

"Some of this we just have in our heads. Some is in our database," Cox said. "If we hadn't already had those connections, this might have taken weeks."

Instead, the calls took a few days, and about 100 businesses said they were interested, O'Donnell said.

"We said, 'Here's what we're hearing from the state. They need cotton gowns. They need face masks. They need face shields. Are you producing them? Can you produce them? Or can you produce parts for them?' We got what I can only say is an overwhelming response," O'Donnell said.

Within a week, CIRAS assembled public lists of Iowa companies making or prepared to make PPE or hand sanitizer, O'Donnell said. In addition, CIRAS heard from dozens of companies who could assist in a partial way, such as providing needed materials, labor or expertise. It has helped some of those manufacturers coordinate their efforts.

"These are companies of every shape and size. For some, this is a world they've never imagined," he said. "Statewide, the best role we can serve is to connect companies that can move quickly and to solve focused problems when they come up."

Speaking manufacturing

Given that companies are making unfamiliar products and selling to new customers, the snags run the gamut. CIRAS staff who specialize in government contracting have helped break down communication barriers, while other CIRAS staff have helped companies sort out required specifications and standards with buyers, Cox said.

"We speak manufacturing. When a manufacturer wants to help out on something, we know what questions they're going to have," he said.

Some companies have needed advice on constructing bids because they don't know what their costs will be. "These companies are moving into this with no innate sense. Should they be assembling 10 units per hour or 1,000 units per hour?" O'Donnell said.

In other instances, staff have assembled partnerships. To encourage face shield production, CIRAS brought together The Dimensional Group and Angstrom Precision Molding. The Dimensional Group, of Mason City, makes many custom products and could create the shield. Angstrom Precision Molding, of Ottumwa, could make the halo that holds the shield but needed assistance designing and obtaining the molding.

"Over the course of a few days, we put together a process," said Adam Gold, owner of The Dimensional Group.

CIRAS technology program director Chris Hill was in on every discussion between Gold and Angstrom chief operating officer Jim Johnson and even coached them on product design.

"He was absolutely instrumental," Gold said.

Manufacturing requests

CIRAS is coordinating manufacturing requests related to COVID-19 health care needs. Faculty and staff who receive such a request should send it to so it can be logged and reviewed. Faculty and staff who have a desire to help and the relevant research capabilities -- such as medical device manufacturing, rapid factory changeover or pursuing highly regulated markets -- should contact Mike O’Donnell at

Both companies are selling their product at cost, but it helps keep their workers employed at a time when business is slowing down. Gold said by the end of this week, they'll have delivered 65,000 face shields, and production capacity could reach 100,000 units next week. Based on the need and the downturn in other orders, most of Gold's 50-person staff likely will be focused on face shields by the end of the month, he said.

Complex problems

Beyond boosting PPE production, CIRAS has fielded hundreds of questions from businesses about how they should adjust operations during the crisis. Detailed guidance on many of those issues is offered in tip sheets on its COVID-19 business resources webpage.

They're also tapping university experts to work through complex problems that have emerged in the crisis. For instance, an ISU team that includes Thielen Student Health Center and environmental health and safety staff is exploring procedures to safely reuse and decontaminate N95 masks, Cox said.

"Hopefully, we won't have to do it. But we're looking at it, in case," he said.

CIRAS is working with the Center for Crops Utilization Research on ways to mitigate the disruption of the carbon dioxide supply caused when ethanol plants temporarily shut down due to decreased gas prices. The plants also produced carbon dioxide, which is used extensively by food manufacturers, O'Donnell said

"These are new problems that didn't exist a month ago. We've had to pivot to look for new information and new sources," Cox said.

Part B

If dealing with the public health emergency is part A, part B -- economic recovery -- is coming soon, O'Donnell said. In the past week, questions CIRAS has received from Iowa businesses have changed. The initial surge of inquiries about operations has passed.

"Companies are starting to say, 'What's my cash flow look like? What do my markets look like?'" he said. "That's what we're starting to get the first inklings of right now."

That also bears out in a rolling survey of Iowa businesses CIRAS began conducting in March that will continue in the coming months, O'Donnell said. When the survey kicked off, most businesses were operating at 80% at worst. About 40% have been running at half capacity or less in the most recent surveys, he said.

"Everybody's going to be impacted by this in some way," Cox said.

As CIRAS moves to help administer relief programs, additional student staff will be hired and outside consultants will be needed, O'Donnell said.

"That's an all-hands-on-deck activity," he said.

Most of those services will be free for businesses, as they have been in the response to the PPE shortage, he said.

Gold said he thinks CIRAS is well-positioned to help the state's industries manage the recovery, in part due to their pre-existing relationships and their response so far.

"From what I've seen, they've been extremely aggressive in engaging and asking if there's anything they can do to help," he said.

P&S employees are closer to learning their new job titles

Professional and scientific (P&S) employees, along with their supervisors, will learn their job titles in the new classification and compensation system in individual emails from university human resources (UHR). The timing of those emails isn't set yet, UHR classification and compensation director Emma Mallarino Houghton said April 14 during an online seminar for P&S employees. She said some "linking" meetings -- in which HR delivery teams assist local managers as they assign their employees to job titles -- haven't occurred yet due to demands on staff time by the COVID-19 pandemic. Once they're complete, the classification/compensation team will review supervisors' job linkings before sharing them.

By the time P&S staff learn their new job titles, Mallarino Houghton said the classification/compensation review website will include resources such as:

  • All 500-plus job titles in 29 job families.
  • Descriptions for job titles.
  • Explanation of the three job levels: support contributor, individual contributor, manager.
  • Tips and questions to help employees understand their placement and assess its correlation to the work they do.

The three-year project to develop a P&S classification and compensation system that reflects and keeps pace with the market received a green light for implementation in February. The intent is to more accurately define the work P&S employees do and, over time, align the relative value of that work in a market-driven pay structure. The big-picture goal is to do a better job of attracting and retaining talented employees, Mallarino Houghton said.

Employee review period

Before the new P&S job titles are linked to the 15-grade pay structure approved earlier this month by the state Board of Regents, employees -- or their supervisors -- who question their job title assignment will have time to learn more and, if they choose, request a review of the assignment. For employees whose work tasks have changed significantly in recent months, this will be the time to make sure they are assigned to the appropriate job title. Once a timeline for employee review is set, Mallarino Houghton said she also will share a step-by-step review process.

When the employee review proces is complete, Mallarino Houghton said full implementation will occur in Workday, where employees will see their final title and placement in the pay structure.

She reminded employees what will change for them in the new system:

  • Job title (some may look similar to current titles)
  • Description for that job title that includes examples of tasks performed
  • Pay grade

She also noted some things won't change as a result of implementation:

  • The work an employee does
  • Salary and benefits
  • Your supervisor

Mallarino Houghton opened most of the seminar to questions from its 275 participants. Following are some of those, with her responses.


Q: What will promotion look like in the new system?

The promotion policy was new last July 1 with Workday implementation. Promotion should be based on performance in a job. The new P&S structure, including level guides, lays out when an employee is working at the next level in a sustained way -- for at least six months, though that's not cut and dried.

Learn more

A recording of this week's seminar (labeled FY20-9) will be posted in Learn@ISU. Previous Mallarino Houghton seminars archived there include:

  • FY18-6: The market-based pay structure, March 2018
  • FY19-7: The classification structure and level guidelines, March 2019
  • FY20-3: Project update, Sept. 2019

When an employee demonstrates work at a higher level consistently, and there's a need for that higher level in a department, promotion -- movement through the level guides -- is appropriate. We want employees to "sit in class and grow in grade" as much as possible.

Discretionary increases such as annual performance increases or market adjustments help an employee's salary grow, even if there aren't opportunities for promotion.

Q: What will reclassification look like in the new system?

Reclassification should address misclassification. We don't want people using reclassification to account for growth -- that's the purpose of promotions. In the future, reclassification should be the exception, not the rule. It would occur when an employee is doing a job that doesn't align at all with their current classification. That reclassification process can result in promotion, demotion or transfer to another job title at the same level.

Q: How are we ensuring we're not classifying women or people of color into lower-tier jobs?

That's why HR delivery staff are the facilitators of the linking meetings. We asked them to keep an eye out for decisions that might have an impact on protected groups. We are asking the questions that need to be asked and keeping tabs on equity questions.

Q: Will this new system fix internal salary inequities?

We want to be consistent about how we classify P&S employees, including use of the level guides. Consistency in classification will help address compensation inequities. At such a large institution, there may be nuances in each unit, so there will always be some variance. It won't be 100% "equal," but what we're driving toward is consistency in pay delivery and how decisions are made.

Q: What's the impact of lean budgets on implementation of this system?

This project is about a better classification and compensation system for P&S employees. We've been clear that, at the time of implementation, it will be cost-neutral. But once it goes live, we'll see where everything is and we'll need to make strategic decisions about what needs to happen from a compensation perspective. In the new system, we're better equipped to do market analysis. Even in the current budget environment, it's important to have a picture of how P&S employee salaries align with market -- and what, as an institution, we want to do about it.

Q: Will employees be brought in at salaries higher than current employees in the same position?

That happens today. We assess higher salaries for new employees on an individual basis. The new structure will more clearly show the manager what the market for a job is. In the future, the pay grade is the market for that job, so managers can make a salary decision based on the skills and experience of that new hire. HR delivery specialists are there to help them make decisions.

For current employees, being linked to a new title will indicate your (pay) is high, it's low or it's right on target in relation to the market. We're telling HR delivery we have to plan for a process for changing compensation if we come across particular market issues when we go live in Workday.

Q: What job benchmarks were used to establish compensation ranges?

For higher education jobs, we looked at higher education markets, for industry jobs we looked at industry markets, for jobs covered by both we did blending. We looked at local, regional and national benchmark data, so we tried to cover our bases as best we can. We won't be able to benchmark every job we have (some are unique to Iowa State), so we used similarly positioned jobs to assess the market. For some jobs, our market is mostly local, and for others, it's predominantly national. We decided to target national average for the majority of our jobs.

We were able to benchmark more than 70% of our jobs. The extended project team spent more than a year on this.


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Graduation weekend will be an online experience

Plans for virtual spring commencement ceremonies are underway. In an email to graduating students last week, President Wendy Wintersteen said ceremonies for undergraduate, graduate and professional veterinary medicine students will be available on demand Saturday, May 9 (beginning at 10 a.m. CST on

Approximately 5,100 Iowa State students are on schedule to complete degrees this semester.

"We are excited to bring the pomp, circumstance and Iowa State commencement traditions to you wherever you may be in Iowa, the country or around the world," Wintersteen wrote.

Before May 9, students will receive by mail their diploma cover, souvenir tassel and celebratory streamer tube. They still have the option of purchasing academic attire from the ISU Book Store.

Wintersteen said the colleges are developing plans to move their graduation celebrations online, too.

"We know that commencement is one of the most important and special events that our university holds. Your years of hard work, dedication and focused study deserve to be recognized and celebrated," she wrote. "While we can't be together in person, we are developing creative ways to honor you and your momentous achievement."

For those craving the opportunity to walk across the commencement stage, Wintersteen also invited all spring graduating students to return to campus in December or next May to participate in graduation events.

By the numbers: The skyrocketing use of virtual meetings

If you're working from home these days, you know virtual meetings on platforms like Webex, Zoom and Microsoft Teams are essential to keeping Iowa State running. But seeing precisely how much the traffic has increased still is startling.

Comparing meeting apps

Check out a side-by-side comparison of video conferencing tools, one of the many resources information technology services offers at its learning and working remotely website.

Information technology services staff shared ISU usage statistics for each of those three programs for the three work weeks after spring break (March 23-April 10, excluding weekends) and the three weeks before (Feb. 24-March 13, excluding weekends). Here are some highlights:


Cisco Webex is the recommended video conferencing platform for the campus community, with a license available for every Net-ID. It has hosted the biggest share of the expansion in virtual meeting traffic. The percentage increases would be even larger if the last week before spring break was excluded. Just 243 Webex meetings were held Feb. 24-28. By March 9-13, the week before spring break, there were 1,736 meetings.


Average per week 3 weeks before break

Average per week 3 weeks after break

Total increase by percentage





Video meetings




Meeting minutes




Unique hosts









The proportional increase in Zoom usage, while large, is noticeably smaller than in Webex or Microsoft Teams. Zoom meeting minutes are calculated on a per-participant basis. For example, a meeting attended by 20 people for 20 minutes would count as 400 Zoom minutes, not 20.


Average per week 3 weeks before break

Average per week 3 weeks after break

Total increase by percentage





Meeting minutes








Microsoft Teams

While Teams is used the least of the three platforms, it saw the largest percentage increase in meetings (5,603%) from the first week of this six-week period (39) to the final week (2,224).


Average per week 3 weeks before break

Average per week 3 weeks after break

Total increase by percentage