• ENGR 101: Creating Hands-On Learning at Home

ENGR 101: Creating Hands-On Learning at Home

The inherent nature of engineers is to solve problems. Naturally, when the COVID-19 pandemic started earlier this year, MSE students and faculty were quick to evaluate, strategize and adapt. The sudden transition to online learning changed the lives of everyone at Penn. For students, what used to be an invigorating walk from dorm and apartment buildings to the Engineering Quad was now a few steps from beds to laptops. For faculty, classes had to be restructured to accommodate all of the different environments and time zones students were now living in. However, this article is not about how COVID-19 has hindered our abilities to learn and teach, rather how students and faculty have independently and together faced these challenges head on.

One class that had to go through extensive changes to adapt to the online curriculum was ENGR 101: Introduction to Engineering. In a typical year, ENGR 101 would be a chance for freshmen to explore different fields of engineering on the way toward their selection of an engineering major. A significant feature of this class is that it involves a lot of hands on lab experience from fabricating OLEDs in the Materials Science lab to testing different wind turbines in the MEAM lab’s wind tunnel. With Penn’s decision to make the 2020 fall semester completely online, there was no way for students to experience these different labs in person. Instead, to retain the core values of the class, we had to bring the lab to them.

One of the most impactful ENGR 101 labs this semester was the materials science lab, which was designed around the current pandemic. Students explored and analyzed the characteristics of different types of mask materials, including woven cotton fabric to N-95 masks. For this lab, students were sent handheld optical microscopes (pictured) and seven different mask materials. With the help of MSE Undergraduate Program Coordinator Vicky Lee, we successfully shipped lab kits to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, New Zealand, and across North America. Thanks to MSE Instructional Lab Manager Steve Szewcyk, students were still able to experience some aspects of the lab. Steve used the brand-new table-top scanning electron microscope to collect fantastic images of the various materials. Then, the TAs (Leah Narun and Hyunil Kim), Steve and Prof. Karen Winey brainstormed various ways what the class might be able to test and evaluate these mask materials on their own.

Despite being out of the lab, it was evident that students were eager to try things, fail, modify their ideas, and try again. The MSE mask lab had an open-ended and creative element in which students designed their own experiment to test the breathability (airflow) of the mask materials. The students were very resourceful and used common household items to design their experiment. They went above and beyond our expectations by using devices such as bike pumps and hair dryers to control airflow through the mask materials and measured the motion of the likes of a flying cheese puff, a rolling marble, or the flutter of paper. Another part of the lab consisted of students using their optical microscopes to explore other objects. Once again, the first-year students impressed us with their ingenuity with some taking images of and comparing the OLED screens of newer smartphones with the LCD screens of older generations.

However, classes are not the only part of student life affected by COVID-19. With everyone working remotely from home, the once lively MSE lounge, a place where MSE students of all different years meet and study together, is now empty and quiet. To maintain this sense of community, members of the MSE Society have worked hard to give students a way to interact virtually with other MSE students. We have recreated the MSE lounge through an undergraduate department Slack channel where students are able to talk among themselves and with faculty about classes, careers, or connect for virtual game nights. Additionally, we have started a new mentorship program where upperclassmen are paired with a freshman to help guide them through their first year at Penn. We have also been organizing panels about different career opportunities and paths to take after graduating.

During these unprecedented times, we should pause to acknowledge and admire the effort and energy that students, faculty and staff have put in to create a positive learning environment. Because of our collective perseverance and commitment to the department, to learning and to one another, MSE is problem-solving to adapt to this new and evolving college experience.


Figure:  Photo of pocket optical microscope with a smart phone capturing the images.  Photo by Steve Szewcyk

written by Hyunil Kim, MSE ’23, ENGR 101 Teaching Assistant
edited by Abigail Behrends