Students Lead the Charge to Salvage Religious Conference

photo of Andrew Karnopp and Stephen Drena

When one door closes, somewhere a Zoom window opens.

In March, university administrators cancelled the remainder of UWM’s spring events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With just two weeks to go before their April 4 undergraduate research conference, members of UWM’s Religious Studies program were left with a difficult choice.

“We had to make the decision whether or not to cancel our whole thing altogether,” said Andrew Karnopp. “We had just sent out the (acceptance) email to all of our presenters. We didn’t want to see all of our hard work go to waste, so we made the decision as a group to move online.”

The Religious Studies’ Undergraduate Research Conference is a student-led, student-focused forum where undergraduate researchers around the country are invited to present their work at UWM. This year, the Religious Studies program asked participants to send in their research related to the “Intersectionality of Religion and Contemporary Global Issues.”

It was also among the first events at UWM to switch to an entirely virtual format in the wake of pandemic-related cancellations.

Karnopp, a philosophy major with minors in religious studies and political science, was one of the Religious Studies program’s student interns responsible for coordinating the annual event. He and his fellow interns, Kristen Leer and Stephen Drena, led the charge to transition the conference online.

“I don’t have any formal training in any computer area, but we’re all millennials. We know how to do this,” Karnopp joked.

The students worked closely with Lane Sunwall, a technology consultant in UWM’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.

To successfully transfer a conference online in just two weeks, said Sunwall, you need “A group of student leaders and faculty/staff partners willing to jump with both feet into the unknown to accomplish an ever changing problem set brought on by an international pandemic.”

The actual technological platform was less important than the flexibility and leadership of all involved, Sunwall added, but he noted that the group used Blackboard Collaborate Ultra in Google Chrome so that they could use the share Chrome Tab Audio feature. The group shared a participant link with attendees so that anyone with the link could join without a login. Most speakers spoke aided by MS Powerpoint slides, and official conference slides were created with Google Slides.

The conference was divided into three themed panels. Three students presented their work in each session with 15 minutes left for questions. The day concluded with a keynote speaker from UW-Madison.

The students prepared for every detail they could think of. Karnopp wrote a “online conference etiquette” guide for family members who dropped in to view their students’ presentations. The conference was run live, though the organizers asked students to pre-record their presentations as a back-up measure.

“Honestly, I feel that due to everyone working together so well, our conference was better and more smoothly run than ever before,” added Meghan Murphy-Lee, the director of UWM’s religious studies program. “I could not be prouder of the result.”
Holding the conference virtually had unexpected benefits.

“There’s discussion now that if we want to continue involving people from out-of-state — we had a presenter from George Washington University, for example — we’ve talked about the benefits to holding the conference annually in a virtual format, or a mix of in-person and virtual,” Drena, a history and religious studies major, explained.

This year’s conference could provide a template for events to come – pandemic or not.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science