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Campus in the Time of COVID

Aug 01, 2020   |   by Kathryn Lapierre   |   Dartmouth Engineer

Thayer School’s motto—“To prepare the most capable and faithful, for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service”—has recently taken on new meaning.

With Dartmouth’s rapid transition to remote learning amid a global health crisis, students and researchers are working hard to prove themselves capable, even as they run 3-D printers from childhood bedrooms, conduct research at kitchen sinks, and attend office hours over Zoom. This time of difficult service has also tested faculty and staff.

Providing hands-on, project-based learning and opportunities for innovation within a close-knit community—the hallmarks of a Dartmouth engineering education—is not easy when classrooms and labs are closed and access to campus is limited. Despite these challenges, faculty have found ways to adapt teaching strategies, rethink projects, and secure lab materials and components for kits that can be shipped to wherever students now consider their “classrooms.” In some labs, research focus shifted to better understanding the human response to COVID-19.

Here are some stories and anecdotes from faculty and staff that speak to the challenges and triumphs in unprecedented times.

The race to go online was a deep challenge for ENGS 146 [Computer-Aided Mechanical Engineering Design], where students typically spend the majority of their learning time either at Thayer’s CAD workstations collaborating side-by-side or operating industrial CNC milling machines in the Mshop [Machine Shop]. We redeveloped the course to enable the students to thrive and learn in what we hope will be the best ENGS 146 offering ever. For the culminating project, we took inspiration from the “Longitude Problem” that led to invention of the first practical marine chronometer by John Harrison in the 1700s. Our challenge to the students was to design and build marine chronometers using low-cost, desktop 3-D printers that Thayer shipped to students’ doorsteps.

Solomon Diamond, Associate Professor of Engineering

For ENGS 12 [Design Thinking] and the Senior Design Challenge, we went back to first principles: What is it that’s really important about hands-on work?

One thing is instilling the designer-engineer mindset of thinking by doing. Physical manipulation of objects and materials can be an important, insight-generating strategy. You can think with your hands and get great feedback, even if all you have to manipulate is simple household stuff. The first Swiffer prototype was made by duct-taping a Mr. Clean bottle and a windshield squirter onto a sponge mop. Like this example, we adapted projects to be realized with simple materials students might find around their houses.

Beyond physical prototyping, collaboration is important. While this is trickier, virtual tools help students stay connected and work together. We devised activities that allow students to build meaningful friendships, which are the foundation of fantastic collaborative relationships.

Eugene Korsunskiy, Assistant Professor of Engineering

Kitchens became makeshift classrooms and labs during the spring and summer 2020 terms. For the culminating lab for ENGS 147: Mechatronics, students used parts shipped to their homes to design a feedback controller to stabilize a mini-Segway.

The “how” is a day at a time. I taught Mechatronics, which is typically a lab course, online. I redeveloped the entire course. Because I anticipated the online move about 10 days before it happened, I was able to order parts before the rest of the world, and they shipped from California the day before the state’s stay-at-home order went into effect. We had a packing extravaganza—kits for autonomous robots and assembled, self-balancing robots with 9-axis sensors—and shipped all but one kit the Friday before classes began.

The first lab was altogether different, but everyone was able to do it successfully. We went through and troubleshot every step together, and students used chat to help each other. Overall, I found it to be much like my first year of teaching: just a step ahead of the students.

Laura Ray, Professor of Engineering, Senior Associate Dean, Faculty Development

In early March, a group of graduate students approached Professor Margie Ackerman and made the case that the antibody work we were doing with HIV, polio, malaria, and other infectious disease pathogens could be adapted to investigate SARS-CoV-2 infections. Because our platforms are particularly good at looking at mucosal antibodies—which are secreted into the respiratory tract where coronaviruses take root—and capture a broad profile of an individual’s immune response, we decided to adapt our research to COVID-19 to better understand the types of antibodies people are generating from SARS-CoV-2 infections and where in the body those antibodies are observed. Because the technology was in place beforehand, it was a pretty straightforward shift once we had the right reagents and resources. Using this platform to identify the antibodies responsible for improving a person’s health would not only inform vaccine design, but it could also lead to therapeutic agents that can be developed commercially to help sick people recover.

Joshua Weiner G’14, Research Associate and Project Manager, Dartmouth Antibody Lab

I’ve had the chance to work with the Dartmouth Emerging Engineers undergraduate support group, and we shifted our TA program to offer remote help sessions. I’m also one of the co-advisors for Graduates in Need of Decompression, which focuses on mental health and well-being. The student leaders compiled a list of online, free resources for stress management, entertainment, nutrition, fitness, and more. The Thayer Community Builders and Wellness committees are exploring ways to keep the community remotely engaged. While it has been an adjustment, I am constantly impressed with the Thayer community and how faculty, staff, and students have made this possible.

Jessica Moody, Administrative Coordinator Academic & Student Affairs

Launching two online courses has been an interesting and all-consuming challenge. We’ve found that it’s important to script everything, think through the whole class experience, and prepare for every step. We added several COVID-19 talks to ENGS 5 [Healthcare and Biotechnology in the 21st Century] to better understand the pandemic as well as technologies related to vaccines and diagnostics. We thought it would be a great opportunity to engage with a national community of experts who are part of the extraordinary personal and professional network of Dr. Joseph Rosen, who co-taught the course. He’s deeply knowledgeable about the requirements for a comprehensive response plan to take care of medical needs during national emergencies, which is what we need right now.

Peter Robbie, Associate Professor of Engineering

From 1999 to now, I’ve been working on pandemics, studying basically every biological event in the last 100 years. When I was asked by Peter Robbie to give a section on COVID to the ENGS 5 class, I put together 10 lectures by 10 experts on COVID-19. The students have been very excited about the new material. We were asked to expand our enrollment from 46 to 100. The course registration opened up at 8 a.m., and we had 100 students by 8:30 a.m. I thought that was pretty impressive.

Joseph Rosen, Professor of Surgery, Geisel School of Medicine, Adjunct Professor of Engineering, Senior Lecturer

All at once we had to reshape how we in the MShop would deliver hands-on, educational experiences. We’d already been working to upgrade our 3-D printing and laser-cutting resources, we were able to provide services for students’ CAD learning and project models. They send us digital files; we vet them and send them back parts. For the more advanced courses, our team has put together kits, learning plans, and instructional videos. Students seem excited to realize their ideas through this collaborative model.

We are also part of a greater effort to support our medical community through the building of personal protective equipment. These are difficult times, but we find it satisfying to address the challenges in sup­porting both our students and the greater community through innovative engineering and teaching.

Lee Schuette, MShop Manager of Operations

Traditionally, my work has primarily focused on external communications and marketing. When the decision was made to shift to remote learning, I shifted toward supporting instruction and internal communications, specifically assisting faculty with recording and preparing material. It has been tough to pick up and change everything so quickly. I’m glad my skillset has been helpful as we all go through this challenging period.

Charles Spydell, Video Production Specialist

Part of my responsibility was to assemble 70 lab kits. We shipped boards and miniature laboratory benches students needed to build, test, and debug real circuits. We even sent them Thayer School stickers! Working with these exceptional students, as well as faculty and staff, has been an absolute joy. The community has come together as a unified, coordinated front. I’m grateful for the dedication of my colleagues and the resilience of my students.

Benjamin Dobbins ’18, Digital Electronics Lab Instructor

The need to retain hands-on, interactive learning caused us to pivot quickly. We now deliver breakout sessions and groups discussions on Zoom. Normally, students would have access to an electronics lab with a full suite of test instrumentation. And though we couldn’t send our students the entire lab, we realized we could help ENGS 22 [Systems] and ENGS 31 [Digital Electronics] students set up home-based labs by sending them Analog Discovery 2 modules to allow them to analyze their circuits.

I ran one of our first lab sessions from a very empty MacLean. Through the camera, I said, “Welcome to Couch Lab. It’s a little quiet here now, and I’m going show you what it looks like.” I rotated the camera through the lab and added, “I wish you were all here now.” I got lots of smiles.

Christopher Levey, Director, Safety & Instructional Lab

Computing Services shifted to remote learning nearly overnight. We identified and developed technologies, partnering with faculty and staff to convert classes on short notice. Administrative assistants became videoconference experts, helped test Zoom, and acted as meeting co-hosts. Faculty unfamiliar with new technologies learned and practiced for online classes and lecture recordings. After three weeks full of challenges, we watched closely to see how Zoom would perform, scrambling when things inevitably went wrong. Overall, the massive shift went smoothly. Students experiencing their own technology challenges—such as bad internet, broken computers, and even no computers—were resourceful, helpful, and understanding as we helped them remotely. Everyone’s positive approach and energy were just what we needed. One example of this was when a professor said before classes started, “I got this. I’m going to figure out how to do this. I’m energized to make this happen.”

Mark Franklin, Senior Director, Computing Services

For ENGS 20 [Introduction to Scientific Computing], my biggest goal was to give students the social support they needed so desperately. Students need to interact with each other—especially my first-years, who are still so new to Dartmouth and Thayer. So I broke up my 100 students into groups of four or five.

Students prepare for class by watching short preparatory videos and taking quizzes. During each synchronous meeting, groups are sent into breakout rooms to collaboratively work on coding assignments. My team of Learning Fellows rotates through these sessions to assist, then I call students back into the main room and go over solutions. They can ask questions via the chat feature monitored by the Learning Fellows. I keep track of their understanding with quick polls. After class they have homework assignments, and I have a team of TAs who run help sessions every day. Class is pretty similar to how I normally run it, except we see each other over Zoom rather than in person.

The term was all about flexibility. Everyone went out of their way to join forces, brainstorm, and experiment to make this happen. I am so proud to be part of this amazing Thayer family.

Petra Bonfert-Taylor, Professor of Engineering

Kathryn Lapierre is the editor of Dartmouth Engineer.

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