Online Resources Make for Smoother Transition to Virtual Instruction as Faculty and Students Face Challenges Together
Different time zones. Spotty internet connections. Sometimes a stray family member pops into view during a Zoom meeting. COVID-19 has thrown plenty of challenges toward everyone in The Grainger College of Engineering, but our faculty and students have handled it all with ingenuity and patience; and have utilized a variety of online resources already in place before the pandemic shut down campus. More than ever, our faculty are finding effective, and sometimes creative, ways to stay engaged with students.
Caleb Brooks, a Nuclear, Plasma, and Radiological professor, used a light approach with students in preparation of their virtual return from Spring Break. Brooks filmed himself referring to his “Corona-cation to-do list” on his whiteboard, which playfully included “stitch on elbow patches, practice handwriting, and catch up on grading.” Brooks leaves his students with the message, “Stay healthy, stay safe, keep learning, and go Illini.”
Kathryn Huff, an NPRE professor, welcomed students back by taking to social media to offer a peek into her home office and virtual classroom, which included Nyx, her Labrador retriever and Weimaraner mix. “She spends most of the day napping,” Huff said of her lounging office mate.
Some of our students are also taking an ever-changing situation in stride as they, too, make personalized connections. Grainger Engineering siblings, Noel Brindise, B.S. ’19, Aerospace; and Scott Brindise, B.S. ’22, Aerospace; offered a snapshot into their lives during a ride-along experience with their video.
When it comes to educating students, our instructors return to a more formal approach, and teaching assistants are an important asset as they assist with online education. Bioengineering seniors and TAs, Benjamin David and Faisal Masood, turned to Illinois Media Space just before Spring Break to film a virtual lab for students in Teaching Professor Karin Jensen’s BioE 202, Cell & Tissue Engineering Lab.
Discussion boards like Piazza and Canvas help our faculty and students catch up with each other while online system, PrairieLearn, continues to be an invaluable resource to professors like Andre Schleife, a Materials Science and Engineering professor; and Chris Schmitz, an Electrical and Computer Engineering professor.
“Some of the early stages of moving homework and exams onto PraireLearn definitely helped us to quickly migrate online,” Schmitz said, whose ECE 110, Intro to Electronics benefited from a three-year Strategic Instructional Innovations Program (SIIP) Grant starting in 2014. The grant contributed to Schmitz’s website and online homework.
Struggles with internet connectivity and time zones led Schmitz to suspend lecture attendance requirements for his students. For those who couldn’t attend, students could watch videos from last semester’s lectures, or use them as a resource to review. Teaching a hardware lab has proved to be somewhat trickier.
“Luckily, I have a group of graduate TAs who have shown themselves to be very creative and capable in helping to map learning objectives; some old, some new, into simulated labs,” Schmitz said. ‘We haven’t missed a beat, and the students seem to accept the rewrites as a necessity and are glad that the education can continue.”
For Molly Goldstein, an Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering teaching professor, moving courses online has been especially challenging for her hands-on course, SE 101: Engineering Graphics and Design. Goldstein said she prided herself on hiring undergraduate lab assistants to be accessible to students. Zoom for Office Hours works as a stand-in for the time being.
“It’s not the same,” Goldstein said. “It’s an okay Band-Aid for right now because the lab assistants are still wanting to impact the classes. From what I’ve heard from the students, they miss sitting next to each other in labs and teaching each other.”
As our faculty do their best to work with students’ challenges and acknowledge that online resources can’t replace our face-to-face interactions, Goldstein hopes students will one day see this “shared experience” as an advantage.
“We don’t always, in industry, have the luxury of sitting right next to somebody when we want to talk through issues,” Goldstein said. “If students take this opportunity to address some of these difficulties, I think this leaves them even stronger.”
Grainger Engineering Students Adapting
to New Learning Environments