Labs: COVID-19 Pandemic
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
As students return to campus for the fall 2021 semester, the pandemic has begun to cease. Both students and faculty hope for a sense of normalcy after having a full year of virtual and hybrid learning. Luckily, most of the classes will be returning to an in-person
modality! However, will some of the elements of virtual learning be integrated into current curriculums? How exactly has COVID-19 affected classes for both students and professors? This article will focus on a few different classes and present the professor perspective of these questions.
ECE 2514 Computational Engineering
Computational Engineering is a sophomore electrical and computer engineering course. Professor Cameron Patterson has been teaching this class since it was introduced in 2019.
Patterson mentioned that “while the ECE 2514 daily and weekly exercises follow the conventional approach of individual assignments focused on a particular programming language, the projects try to provide a glimpse of what software developers do in practice.”
Patterson also believes that the class offers a more creative approach to teaching introductory level programming.
In terms of the coursework, there are four projects related to the physical environment. “In fall 2020 for example, the first two projects extracted beat times from chosen music in order to choreograph a virtual object’s motion with the soundtrack. The last two projects parsed and executed a custom flight plan language that has the Tello indoor drone, safely enclosed in a protective cage, navigate a 3D environment in a manner selected by the student team. The last project illustrates that programming is not
necessarily a solitary activity turning someone else’s specs into code.” Since this class was virtual for the duration of the pandemic, many students contributed from different states and even countries. Patterson noted that all students were able to contribute
different elements for the collaboration. It was also an opportunity for groups to interact with each other during a time when many were in quarantine. One of the things that Patterson thought was a benefit of the virtual/hybrid modality was the option of asking questions through the Zoom chat and Piazza. These methods “appealed to some students who might not otherwise ask questions during a face-to-face class.”
ENGE 1215 + 1216 Foundations of Engineering I and II
The Foundations of Engineering series is mainly for freshmen in general engineering. Professor Jenny Lo has been teaching ENGE 1215 for about 20 years. In ENGE 1215 (Foundations of Engineering I) and ENGE 1216 (Foundations of Engineering II), students
focus on team-based projects. These projects are designed to get students to use skills based on engineering design, data analysis, and open-ended problem solving. During the pandemic, Lo and her graduate teaching assistants (Sarah Blackowski, Qualla Ketchum, and Karen Martinez Soto) found it useful to use Zoom breakout rooms so that students could build relationships with teammates while also collaborating on projects.
Lo mentioned that “in an in-person setting, I would often ask a few student teams to verbally report their findings to the entire class. With Zoom, I could ask all the teams (not just a subset) to share their work through the chat.”
The COVID-19 pandemic did change quite a lot for professors. Lo was “concerned about how an online environment might impact student motivation, learning, and engagement. I remember restructuring class activities with the aforementioned concerns in mind, learning how to best use features in Zoom and collaborative software packages for real-time instruction, considering ways to facilitate communication between students and the teaching team, learning how to edit videos, and improvising when campus wireless issues and Zoom connectivity problems occurred.”
Lo used various strategies to make the virtual classroom comfortable and collaborative for students. She gave students time in random break-out rooms so that they would be able to have informal conversation and build connections with each other. One thing Lo plans to keep from the virtual classroom is the virtual office hours. “This format allows for more flexibility with respect to availability. Also, in the past, some students mentioned that my office was quite far from their dorms; virtual office hours would save students some travel time.”
Photo series of a ENGE 1216 student group project prototype during the virtual semester, “A Light Strobing Alarm Clock.” The picture on the right is the CAD image. Photo / group E8, spring 2021
CHE 4185 + 4186 Process and Product Design I and II
The Process and Product Design series are for seniors in chemical engineering. Professor Y. A. Liu has been teaching this class since 1982. After noticing that many seniors in chemical engineering didn’t have intern and/or co-op experiences, Liu forged partnerships to give students industrial project experience. This is now integrated in Liu’s capstone design courses. The design course series helps students understand the applications of design, form connections with practicing engineers, and work with data effectively. As mentioned in a 2020 report from the Accreditation Board of Engineering and Technology (ABET), “this partnership provides students a unique opportunity to work on real-world chemical engineering design problems, often including the identification and collection of data at industry facilities” (ABET).
The modality of CHE 4185 and 4186 during the 2020-2021 academic year was in-person, while practicing social distancing. During the spring 2021 semester, students and industrial project advisors had weekly virtual meetings instead of in-person ones.
One thing that Liu hopes to do this year is to work with students in a more hands-on setting and watch them collaborate with each other. He also hopes to make opportunities for “students to visit their industrial project sponsors on-site to interact with their project advisors and see the facilities [e.g. Novozymes Biological (Salem, VA), Universal Fibers (Bristol, VA), Eastman Chemical Company (Kingsport, TN) etc.]”
“This partnership provides students a unique opportunity to work on real-world chemical engineering design problems” -Professor Y. A. Liu
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the regular student experience in many ways. Most professors agree that engagement in classes was more difficult for students because of the amount of distractions that the virtual setting opens up. Luckily, most students will be able to have a greater sense of normalcy this semester, as classes begin the transition back to an in-person modality.