Iowa State faculty, staff work to help others as pandemic continues into summer

Jeremy Thurlby

Jeremy Thurlby, model shop manager with the College of Design, has worked to design plastic ear savers to be worn with PPE. Laser cutters in the college are being used to produce them. Photo by Christopher Gannon. Larger image.

AMES, Iowa — The spring semester at Iowa State University may be over, but work to help others during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t slowed down.

The online shift of classes and everyday work for ISU faculty, staff and students forced many to upend and rethink their daily routines. It also created a moment to think outside of academic silos and find ways to help a variety of communities. 

Ear savers

The ear savers wrap around the head to
provide relief to health care workers
wearing face masks all day. Photo by
Christopher Gannon. Larger image

The typically bustling College of Design building is currently silent except for two workers, including Jeremy Thurlby, model shop manager. His boss, College of Design operations director Michael Miller, pitched an idea to make “ear savers” to alleviate discomfort for hospital staff who have to wear face masks all day.

In the college’s output center, Thurlby started sketching designs and used laser cutting to make several prototypes that he tested on coworker Joseph Bovenmyer, studio support coordinator. They sent the best prototypes to Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames and the Boone County Hospital for feedback.

The final design uses flexible material that curves to the head as well as upward to alleviate pressure on the head and ears. It has three hooks that can be adjusted depending on each person’s needs. So far, Thurlby has cut and shipped 60 ear savers to Boone and 20 to Mary Greeley.

He’s ready to make more as the hospitals need, but in the meantime he’s returning to his typical duties – although even those have changed. With summer classes online and planning in the event that fall courses are online, Thurlby is considering how students can still use the college’s equipment – CNC routers, digital fabrication, laser cutters, woodworking, etc. – if they’re not on campus.

“I’m just glad I can do something to help out during all of this,” he said.

‘The show must go online’ 

Cason Murphy

Cason Murphy

Iowa State’s music and theatre department had to cancel its final two shows of the season when everything migrated online in mid-March. Students were in the midst of rehearsing for the musical comedy “9 to 5.”

But the students didn’t want their season to end so abruptly. On the last Friday of on-campus classes, they scrambled to whip up costumes and a set for a final rehearsal for family and friends.

“We all walked away from it thinking, even if nothing else happens, the last performance we had was a communal experience,” said Cason Murphy, assistant professor of theatre. “Certainly, I’ve never had a rehearsal process end on that note, but at the same time the students were really wonderful and positive.”

Murphy sees an interesting new area for research in the migration of performances to online platforms as “Zoom plays” have become a trend during the pandemic. 

The End of Pyramus

Cason Murphy, in the highlighted green box, acts in
"Pyramus and Thisby" this spring. The actors performed
on YouTube and Facebook Live. Screenshot provided.

He has firsthand experience. Murphy spotted the audition call for “Pyramus and Thisbe: The Most Lamentable Comedy” on Reddit, auditioned over FaceTime, rehearsed over Zoom and eventually performed on YouTube and Facebook Live.

“It breaks down some of those barriers of temporal and geographical distance in a really nice way,” he said.

Theatre faculty and staff have found other ways to help, churning out more than 400 face masks made of material in Iowa State’s costume shop that were sent to hospitals in California, Rhode Island, New York and Virginia. It was an effort that fits perfectly with the department’s new mission statement to “empower citizen artistry.”

“They make costumes so fast, so they were able to turn their speed and ability into something really impactful,” he said.

“We’re cutting away at the perception of the egocentric nature of performing and creating art and thinking about how our art can impact our communities, which in this moment is this national and global community that is suffering. We’ve really gotten a crash course in what it means to be a citizen artist.”

Keeping Iowa youth engaged, excited

Iowa State’s mission to serve has continued beyond campus, with ISU Extension and Outreach offering programming in all 99 Iowa counties. And with one out of four Iowa youth participating in at least one Iowa 4-H program, that’s a great opportunity to have an effect. 

Sara Nelson

Sara Nelson

“We’ve never been through anything like this before, so focusing on mental and physical health, to me, is No. 1,” said Sara Nelson, STEM specialist for ISU Extension and Outreach and the School of Education. “From there, we’re working to help Iowa’s youth find things that engage and excite them.”

Staff have created online learning communities, “grab-and-go” materials and 4-H curricula that families can pick up at Extension county offices, literacy initiatives, a stress management program for teenagers and more. Find a full list of learning resources and weekly challenges at An online spreadsheet on the webpage gives families an easy way to find exactly the kind of content they need.

The “summer slide” – the tendency for students to lose some skills over summer break – is a concern every year, but may be even more so this year. Nelson hopes resources like those that 4-H is providing will help keep youth connected and learning.

“For example, the Iowa 4-H and NASA Iowa Space Grant Consortium STEAM Academy was created to help lessen that issue in that it’s giving people a chance to interact not only with science, technology, engineering, arts and math concepts, but reading and writing are embedded to hopefully help youth not have that summer slide,” Nelson said.