Remote Engineering During a Pandemic

April 1, 2021 | Simran Sokhi

Pratt students and classes adapt to virtual learning

A table top with a bunch of equipment and paper

Contents of the BME 221 (Biomaterials) lab kit mailed to remote students for at-home labs.

Sanika Gupte shows me her intricate circuit for her ECE 230 class. She constructed it at home using a remote engineering lab kit shipped to her at the start of the semester. With the global changes that have ensued since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Pratt School of Engineering has had to adapt and improvise its teaching and learning strategies. Several engineering classes offered during the Fall 2020 semester were conducted as hybrid classes, which allowed students to choose from an in-person or on-line option for lectures and labs. This led to a challenging yet rewarding semester for all students, but especially those who had to adapt to taking classes entirely remotely from all around the world.

The implementation of at-home labs by Pratt faculty and lab staff was an effort to engage remote students as best as possible. In ECE 230, Introduction to Microelectronic Devices and Circuits, students were provided with lab kits containing a multimeter, a breadboard, wiring, resistors and other circuit elements.

“Because of the lab kits, I even had the opportunity to rebuild my circuits later in the week if I was confused about questions on the lab report,” says Gupte, a junior majoring in BME and ECE. She also enjoyed the conversations she had with other students during lab Zoom sessions and is grateful for how close-knit her lab section is. “It definitely was possible to connect to others virtually during the semester.” 

BME 221, Biomaterials, had one lecture a week that was online and one that was in-person, with remote students being able to Zoom into class simultaneously. This lecture style involved significant trial-and-error to figure out the best means to ensure that remote students were able to engage and ask questions through means of the Zoom chat or being able to unmute and speak up.

“As we planned for the semester, we didn’t know how bad the pandemic was going to be on campus, so we approached the course with as much flexibility built into it as possible,” says Joel Collier, associate professor of BME, who taught the class. “We wanted to ensure that there were minimal barriers for a student to switch from the in-person to the virtual format if they needed to, so all lab materials were packaged into kits at the beginning of the semester.

A table top with a bunch of equipment“The instructors also made many videos and collected data sets on instruments that did not lend themselves to socially distanced experiments,” Collier continues. “I also have to stress that conducting the course this way took a team of devoted instructors: lab instructors Marcus Henderson, Christine Mulvey, and Maggie Gatongi; and TAs Elizabeth Curvino and Josh Milligan worked tirelessly to realize this flexible format.”

It was not a hassle-free process for all students, though. Ria Thimmaiahgari, a junior majoring in BME, never received her lab kit for BME 221, owing to the currently strict customs regulations in India. The fact that she was nearly halfway across the world meant that she, along with students in other countries like Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore and China, had to adapt her daily schedule to better be able to match EST work hours, which came with its own set of challenges.

“Taking classes, especially midterms, at 2:00 in the morning was far from ideal!” says Thimmaiahgari.

In addition, while professors held office hours and discussions on Zoom where students were able to work together and ask questions, most students agreed that the experience was just not the same as pre-COVID.

“I’ve always worked on problem sets with people, and we’ve used white boards and markers to explain things to each other, but that is of course not possible now!” says Phoebe Dijour, a BME junior. “Teamwork is much harder!”

While some remote Pratt freshmen decided to fulfill other class requirements in Fall 2020 and take their engineering classes in the spring, others opted to enroll in EGR 101 (Engineering Design and Communication) and EGR 103 (Computational Methods in Engineering). EGR 101 has a heavy design component that had to adapt to accommodate remote students. On-campus fresh-men like Aarzu Gupta enjoyed the intensive hands-on and team-based nature of the class.

Bags hanging in a closet“Amidst Zoom calls all day, it was so refreshing to be able to have in-person interactions and hands-on projects,” says Gupta.

Students taking the class remotely, though, have had a very different experience. First-year student Nidhi Srivaths said, “EGR 101 was definitely a challenge, but the professors and TAs really did their best to make sure we didn’t miss out. It was obviously less hands-on, but we were shipped packages of prototyping material at the beginning of the semester, so surprisingly my team made great progress with physical prototyping! Our team consisted of four people from four different countries. Even scheduling meetings with the different time zones was initially daunting, but after a few weeks of settling in, we really found our rhythm.”

Home lab kits certainly cannot replace the experience and excitement of conducting experiments in labs, and there is no question that seeing faces over Zoom is far removed from in-person interaction. It is evident that remote engineering has its fair share of challenges, but the commitment of the incredible faculty and staff and the relentless hard work of students allowed the Pratt community to adapt and overcome challenges in a year otherwise filled with uncertainty.

To summarize her experience this semester, Thimmaiahgari said, “I look forward to being back on campus next semester, but I think my remote learning experience will always stay with me!” 

Simran Sokhi is a junior majoring in biomedical engineering.