COVID-19 has Initiated Creativity and Resourcefulness by UVA Engineering Faculty to Give Students a “Hands-on-like” Educational Experience from Miles Away

One by one, students’ portraits began popping up on Teresa Culver’s laptop screen. Culver, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment in the University of Virginia School of Engineering, was hosting a virtual lab over a Zoom conference; about a half dozen students watched from their homes all over the country.

This was a new and very different experience compared to her normal lab class, filled with hum of eager and engaged students in the basement of UVA Engineering’s Thornton Hall D wing. Culver, who’s been on the faculty since 1993, teaches Introduction to Environmental Engineering; this was just one team of students from the class’s required lab, which this April day was focused on sanitation and wastewater treatment. 

“Good morning class,” she said after welcoming each student by name. She then excused herself, leaving students peering at a table in her home filled with coffee filters, cheese cloth, assorted plastic cups, spoons, funnels, bleach, sand and other items. After a moment, she returned holding a clear, plastic cup of chunky, dark water. “Floaters and sinkers,” she called the brew, and held it close to the computer’s video camera for the students to see.

“So, how shall we proceed?” she asked.

UVA Engineering lab class conducted virtually over the internet due to Covid 19

Student teaching assistants working with Ann Reimers, an assistant professor in the departments of Engineering and Society and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, conduct online office hours for their peers who are taking the Introduction to Engineering lab.

Just a few weeks prior, in mid-March, that question about how to proceed loomed over faculty and staff up and down UVA’s Engineer’s Way.

While novel coronavirus cases rose rapidly in the United States, and UVA students reeled from upended plans for the remainder of the spring semester, faculty raced to transition their classes online by March 19, including lab classes that are a vital component of engineering learning.

“These are challenging times, and there is no easy way to replace the hands-on learning students get in the lab setting, but our faculty have gone to great lengths to bring the essential concepts of their labs to students,” said N. Scott Barker, UVA Engineering’s associate dean for academic affairs. “In many ways, these online labs might be positive experiences, because they demonstrate the kind of virtual teamwork engineers experience in real workplaces.”

In the Department of Chemical Engineering, professor George Prpich’s Chemical Engineering Lab I class had been going smoothly before the University had to transition to online instruction. Students were poised to begin a hands-on experience studying how fluids can be heated, transported, mixed and separated using a variety of industrial-scale equipment in his lab in Wilsdorf Hall. When the news came that students wouldn’t return to Grounds after spring break, and realizing there was no way students could take large, expensive machines home to operate on their own, Prpich turned to the class’ core teaching objectives: collect data, analyze data, communicate that data, and present it while working in teams.

“We realized that only one of the five components, collect data, couldn’t be achieved given the circumstances,” Prpich said.

Engineers have never met a problem they didn’t love to solve, so he and his colleagues came up with a unique idea to enlist teaching assistants to do the data collection.

“The teaching assistants are the real heroes here. Over spring break, they created videos about how to use the machines, did the experiments, output the data, and then described the theory of the experiment and how the data related to the theory,” Prpich said. “The students reviewed the data, watched the videos, analyzed the data in teams, wrote reports and presented the material remotely. I’m pleased to say we are right on target and haven’t changed the curriculum at all.”

While online learning isn’t always the optimal experience, students said faculty have found a way to make the virtual labs successful. “Lab is important since it allows students to apply the theory they have learned in lecture to basic operating principles common in the industry of chemical engineering,” said third-year chemical engineering student Joseph Letteri. “I am definitely more of a kinesthetic learner, so the lack of hands-on experience with the lab equipment has made learning such principles a challenge.

 “Although this transition has been difficult, I think it's an important experience,” Letteri said. “Learning how to adapt to conditions that are unexpected is an essential life skill itself, and I believe that this transition has allowed me to improve my willingness and ability to communicate with professors, peers and friends. I think it's important to know that everyone is facing this difficult time together. Professors recognize that it is much more difficult to learn in isolated environments. I quickly learned that open communication with Professor Prpich was crucial to moving forward in learning with a virtual lab. I am amazed at the level of support he has given me and other students. He was willing to give me extra help through one-on-one zoom meetings on several occasions, including weekends.”

Across UVA Engineering, student teaching assistants, both graduate and undergraduate, have worked remotely with professors to help make the transition to online lab learning successful.

Online lab, virtual learning at UVA Engineering after Covid 19 forced labs online. Madhur Behl and his autonomous racing course

After learning that classes, including labs, would be moving online by March 19 following the COVID-19 outbreak, Madhur Behl, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, worked with his graduate student, Varundev Sukhil, to transition his very popular F 1/10 Autonomous Racing class online using a custom-made simulator.

When Madhur Behl, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, learned that the University would offer courses online for the remainder of the semester, he wondered how he might pull off his very popular F 1/10 Autonomous Racing class. His teaching assistants had just upgraded all the autonomous miniature race cars with the latest hardware and sensors, and student race teams were eager to get their hands on the vehicles once they returned from spring break.

“The nature of the course is such that it promotes experiential learning, and that's also my teaching philosophy,” Behl said. “Students like this course because they get to build the autonomous race cars, and in doing so learn about the principles of perception, planning and control underpinning any self-driving vehicle.”

Realizing that the class hinged on creating a real-life autonomous racing experience, Behl’s teaching assistant, Ph.D. student Varundev Sukhil, offered to scale up an autonomous online racing simulator that he’d been working on for his research.

Over a period of about 10 days, starting before spring break, Sukhil spent most of his waking hours working from his family’s home in Pennsylvania, tweaking his simulator to run on the Department of Computer Science’s servers. The simulator allows teams of students to virtually build their vehicles and race against each other in real time. Though it was never intended to be used in instruction, the simulator has turned out to be a valuable tool that other universities around the world are calling Behl to find out about so they can implement it in their own instruction.

As the simulator was rolled out, there were obvious headaches and server crashes, however, “given our circumstances, I think the teaching staff did the best that they could,” said Jaspreet Ranjit, a third-year computer science major. Highlighting one of the unintended outcomes, Ranjit said, “My group and I got a lot better at troubleshooting the simulator, and as a result, learned more as a group.”

While it hasn’t been the experience Behl had wanted for his students initially, he said he believes they will all come away with new learning and teamwork skills that might benefit them in the future. He also has high praise for the school’s teaching assistants: “They have really stepped up. I’m not sure how we would have pulled this off, if not for them.”

  • Online lab, virtual learning at UVA Engineering after Covid 19 forced labs online. Keith Williams, cigarbox guitar

    Keith Williams, associate professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, sent students in the studio portion of the Introduction to Engineering class a cigar box guitar kit as part of their final project.

  • Online lab, virtual learning at UVA Engineering after Covid 19 forced labs online. Keith Williams, cigarbox guitar

    Keith Williams, associate professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, sent students in the studio portion of the Introduction to Engineering class a cigar box guitar kit as part of their final project.

  • Online lab, virtual learning at UVA Engineering after Covid 19 forced labs online. Keith Williams, cigarbox guitar

    A finished guitar.

Ann Reimers, assistant professor in the departments of Engineering and Society and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, echoed that sentiment. “We were 100% ready to go,” she said.

Reimers teaches first-year engineering students the Introduction to Engineering course, a class meant to both excite future engineers and provide them an opportunity to explore the various engineering fields. Reimers’ lecture and lab portion of the class, which also includes a hands-on studio segment, has been online for several years, which made the University’s quick transition easier for her and her students.

Reimers routinely leans on her undergraduate teaching assistants to help with the 22 sections of the course, serving about 700 students; but during this COVID-19 pandemic, she has seen this team of teaching assistants excel in their online work with their peers. “They have been essential in answering students’ questions and keeping variable online office hours. They’ve worked strongly as a team to meet this challenge, and I’m very proud of their work.”

The data analysis skills taught in the online lab complement the Introduction to Engineering hands-on studio work led by Keith Williams, associate professor in the Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  During the first part of the semester, Williams teaches and stresses team-building through multiple short-term projects. Normally, toward the end of the semester, he challenges them to build cigar box violins that are not only fun to construct but also teach core engineering principles and introduce several new tools.

“I think it's a great, synthetic capstone project, and it's a pleasant surprise,” he said. “The students don't come to engineering school expecting to build violins.”

In the COVID-19 crisis, Williams couldn’t assign the violin project, because it requires extensive use of tools like scroll saws and Dremel tools and 3-D printers. “So, I had a few hours of freak out when I realized that we weren't going to be coming back after spring break and students wouldn’t have access to the tools in our studio. But then I realized that for about $30 to $40, I could get these fantastic cigar-box guitar kits that require no special tools, and send them out to all 30 of my spring semester students. That's what was done, within a matter of days. As a result, students were able to work remotely on kits that don't require anything beyond a screwdriver and some ingenuity.”

Harry Powell, online lab, electrical and computer engineering

This device was one of the tools sent to electrical and computer engineering students to enable them to conduct their lab experiements at home.

“The let’s-do-it approach is part and parcel to being an engineer,” said Harry Powell, Jr., professor of electrical and computer engineering and the department’s associate chair for undergraduate programs.

Once he realized the more than 120 students in the three electrical and computer engineering Fundamentals classes wouldn’t be returning after spring break, Powell quickly leveraged his contacts at National Instruments and WWW Electronics and was able to order inexpensive, portable test equipment that National Instruments sent directly to the students. WWW pitched in and packaged accompanying parts kits in a single day to be shipped to the students. The kits enabled students to continue their hands-on learning of instrumentation and measurement tools fundamental to understanding electrical engineering. Powell also wrote to each student: “Please understand that we are going to be working hard to give you a good experience, but we realize there could be some bumpy things along the way.”

With classes underway virtually, Powell said, “So far, things are going about as well as you could expect. What I’m sensing is that this has enhanced the students’ sense of community. Students seem to appreciate that we are trying to keep things up for them, and they like the new equipment.”

Back in Culver’s virtual lab, several minutes of silence followed her initial question, but the noise picked up as the students began to break through the barriers of an online lab, including the usual Zoom trials and tribulations of talking over each other, accidentally muting themselves and an occasional awkward pause.

Under Culver’s gentle guidance, the team of students became more comfortable and began debating whether to pour the dirty liquid through a cheesecloth-lined funnel or a coffee filter. Others suggested adding alum, which causes small particles to clump together, as a first step in this wastewater treatment experiment. The students settled on filtering first through the cheesecloth, then adding the alum and filtering again.

After an hour of patiently watching and helping her students work together to come up with a solution to cleaning up the murky water in the plastic cup, Culver thanked them for their time and reminded them they would need to use what they learned during this virtual lab to create their final wastewater treatment plans.

“I was glad I was able to retain the heart of the experiment,” Culver said after conducting more than 800 minutes of online labs between all her student teams.

While most everyone would agree that virtual labs are no replacement for hands-on learning, faculty and students at UVA Engineering have used their engineering skills to make the most of the situation.

“We are right on target and with only minimal curriculum change,” Prpich Said. “Students are learning and doing excellent work, which is what we like to see."