Earth Day Reflections on the Impacts of COVID-19

As the Executive Director and CEO of ABET, I typically travel internationally every month or so for conferences, meetings and other events. I was scheduled to deliver a keynote last month at the International Network for Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education (INQAAHE) in Moscow, Russia, then fly back to the U.S. for my organization’s annual flagship event, the ABET Symposium, in Nashville, Tennessee.

It should come as no surprise that these events — and many others planned in the upcoming months — were either postponed or canceled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In a matter of weeks, everything changed as the virus spread across the globe. Most of the U.S. population retreated indoors as governments enacted social distancing measures and stay-home directives to help slow the spread.

This virus has been hugely disruptive to nearly every aspect of our lives, but disruption often leads to innovation. The suffering that the world has experienced in the span of just a few weeks has been horrific; but with every difficult experience comes the opportunity to learn, grow and better prepare for the future. Today marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and I’d like to take this occasion to share my reflections on some of the unexpected impacts the COVID-19 crisis has had on our planet and how we can learn from this collective experience.

Human behavior and the environment

As the world’s activities ground to a halt, it didn’t take long for people to start noticing changes in the environment — smog vanishing over cities, canals in Venice running clear and wildlife reclaiming urban areas. While it may feel like we’ve all been cooped up in our homes for an eternity, each of the changes we’ve witnessed has happened over a short period of time. Cities around the world are reporting significant drops in pollution levels and scientists are optimistic that further reductions will follow. As I wrote last year on Earth Day, it’s clear that human activity is a prime cause of global climate change. The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills around seven million people every year. While the health risks of COVID-19 potentially pose a much more imminent threat, we can save millions of lives by adopting measures long term that ensure the environmental changes we’re seeing now are not just temporary.

Technology and the future of work

It’s amazing how quickly we were able to see the planet rebound. The short-term impacts resulting from decreased human activity show how lifestyle changes can positively impact the environment. These changes wouldn’t be possible without advanced technology and tools.

Instead of driving to school or the office, millions are now learning online or working remotely. Rather than flying to conferences, thousands are attending virtual conferences without ever leaving their homes. Without technology such as video conferencing platforms, accessible Wi-Fi, email and file sharing systems — as well as cybersecurity tools to keep information secure — many businesses and organizations would not be able to continue to operate during this time.

I recently wrote about canceling the 2020 ABET Symposium: Data Impact due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We planned to hold a pre-conference session at the event to explore accreditation for data science programs. While the Symposium itself was canceled, we were still able to hold a special virtual working session on data science accreditation and had a great turnout of key stakeholders from industry and academia. At some point, we began discussing all the relevant data being collected and analyzed during this crisis — from air pollution to human health and behavior — that will help us better prepare and plan for situations like these in the future.

What is happening in the world today would have been unimaginable to most of us just a few months ago, but if we focus more attention on preparing for these big challenges through education and technological resources, we will be better prepared to combat them in the future.

At ABET, our purpose is to make the world a better place through quality assurance in STEM education. Our criteria ensure that graduates of ABET-accredited programs have the educational foundation to take on the complex global challenges we face. These are the individuals that have created the technology that makes it possible to work and learn remotely. While the future may seem uncertain, we are confident that ABET-accredited programs do and will continue to play a critical role in ensuring that STEM graduates are prepared for a rapidly changing world. I’m also confident they will help solve this crisis and rebuild the world to make it a safer, more sustainable place for all to live.

After weeks of reduced traffic, thousands of airplanes on the ground and factories closed due to California’s stay-at-home order, snow on the San Gabriel Mountains is visible beyond downtown Los Angeles on April 14, 2020. Photo: Getty Images.

The many changes we’re seeing in the environment are a direct result of reduced human activity. For public health and safety, we adjusted (almost overnight) how we work, shop and interact. Life for billions around the world is currently on hold, but that won’t be the case forever. When we go back to “normal,” we will have the opportunity to make changes based on what we’ve learned. We can adapt our daily activities to have a positive impact on the environment, use data to solve challenges for the public good and continue innovating and advancing technology to keep the world connected. We may not know what the new normal will look like, but we can decide what we want it to be.

Executive Director & CEO of ABET, the global accreditor of college and university programs in the STEM disciplines.

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