Scientists as Citizens: Responding to Community Needs

By: Arti Garg
March 23, 2020
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Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

- E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

Trying to make sense of this unprecedented situation, at least in my lifetime, where much of our country and the world is self-isolating and social-distancing, I find myself grateful for connection. I started ESAL after involvement with my city government taught me to measure my impact not just with the abstract metrics I used to make policy recommendations in Washington, DC, but also with the personal and locally visible results that come from connecting with my community. This is the sense of connection that will help us navigate our current uncertainty. By reaching out to our neighbors, we can weather this time knowing we “have each other’s backs.” We don’t have to go it alone.

In this spirit, we’ve compiled a list of ideas for engineers and scientists who want to contribute to COVID-19 efforts. We will continue to add to it as we learn of new efforts, so please send us anything you’d like to see included. We have also added a "COVID-19 Response Resources Page for Engineers and Scientists" listing organizations coordinating COVID-19 response efforts and articles and other resources. You can contribute to it using submission forms on the bottom of the page.

  • Tackle food insecurity by donating to and volunteering at local food banks and other social service-providing agencies
    • As our economy shrinks, the need for food pantries, meal services, and other critical social services will continue to grow. Please consider donating to a food pantry or food bank in your community. The non-profit organization Feeding America offers a search tool to find a food bank near you.
    • Most of these organizations rely on volunteers, and even during shelter-in-place orders these volunteers are often allowed to provide their essential services. If you are healthy and able, please contact (remotely) your food bank to find out if they are accepting new volunteers.
    • Many school districts have arranged to continue providing free school breakfasts and lunches by drive-through. Check your school district website to find out if it is accepting donations.
  • Prevent education gaps by supporting organizations dedicated to increasing digital access
    • As school districts close their schools around the country, schools are moving to digital education for the first time. Unfortunately, many families lack digital access. Organizations like Tech Exchange, based in Oakland, Calif., are scrambling to meet this challenge by providing digital equipment and hotspots to families using drive-through school lunch services. Please consider supporting these efforts to ensure school children in your community continue to receive education.
    • School districts are working hard to get digital equipment to their students. If you have spare computers or hotspots, visit your school district’s website or contact them to find out if they are collecting equipment donations.
  • Bolster your local healthcare system by donating critical resources
    • Medical facilities are starting to experience shortages of protective equipment that can reduce the likelihood of a care provider becoming infected by the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control has published guidelines for care providers to use non-medical grade equipment if a facility experiences shortages.
      • If you have any masks or gowns in your labs or at home, please consider donating them. We’ve found several websites listing hospitals and medical facilities that are accepting donating equipment:,,, and (NB: ESAL has not verified these sites. If you can provide information about their origins, please let us know.)
      • Medical Supply Drive is a nationwide student network collecting PPE and matching it to healthcare workers in need. Read more here about our recent conversation with them.
      • Some facilities are accepting homemade masks. We have not found definitive official information, but we have found this post from a personal website that provides background information and instructions. We also received this list of instructions and printable patterns for sewing several different mask designs from Threads Monthly, who tells us they have been hospital-approved.
      • This bibliography lists published evidence on the effectiveness of homemade masks. (NB: ESAL did not compile this list.)
    • The American Red Cross has announced that it is experiencing a severe blood shortage because of cancellations of blood drives due to COVID-19. They have also launched a blood plasma donation program for people who have recovered from confirmed cases of COVID-19. Visit their site for more information about donating blood near you.
  • Provide STEM education to children out of school
    • As school districts close across the countries, many families are trying to figure out how to homeschool for the first time. The non-profit Skype A Scientist connects volunteer scientists in real-time to classrooms, and now living rooms, across the country.
  • Meet community needs by volunteering with your local government
    • Many local governments already have community volunteer programs to mobilize residents during times of emergency. Some are soliciting additional volunteers to assist with community needs. Visit your local government website to find out if there is a need for volunteers.
    • If you have specialized skills, consider contacting (remotely) your city council or city manager’s office and offering them. These skills may be public health-specific, or they may include web skills to help your city government offer services digitally. Your city staff are busy right now, so expect responses to be slow.
    • The recently-launched US Digital Response is developing a database of volunteers with tech skills to match them to federal, state, and local governments who need them to support their COVID-19 response efforts.
    • The National League of Cities has published a spreadsheet tracking actions local governments have taken in response to COVID-19.
  • Protect elderly and other at-risk individuals by organizing members of your neighborhood to check in and provide necessities
    • Many elderly or chronically ill members of your community may already have difficulty meeting their day-to-day needs. Consider organizing members of your neighborhood (remotely via tools like community listservs, Nextdoor, or Google Sheets) to provide them essentials.
    • The State of California has published several ideas for how people can safely help their communities. Most of these ideas apply to any community.
Engineers & Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) is a non-advocacy, non-political organization. The information in this post is for general informational purposes and does not imply an endorsement by ESAL for any political candidates, businesses, or organizations mentioned herein.
Published: 03/23/20
Updated: 09/14/22
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