ENGR 101: Creating Hands-On Learning at Home
It’s in the inherent nature of an engineer to solve problems. Naturally, when the COVID-19 pandemic started earlier this year, MSE students and faculty were quick to adapt. The sudden transition to online learning had changed the lives of everyone. For students, what used to be a 10 minute walk from dorm buildings to the Engineering Quad was now a few steps from beds to laptops. For faculty, classes had to be restructured to accommodate for all the different environments students were now living in. However, this article isn’t about how COVID-19 has hindered our abilities to learn and teach. It’s about how students and faculty have both faced this challenge head on.
One class in particular 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 and ultimately decide on a 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 come to all these different labs. 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. The lab was designed around the current pandemic. Students explored and analyzed the characteristics of different types of mask materials; from cotton, to PUL fabric and N-95 masks. For this lab, students were sent handheld optical microscopes and 7 different mask materials. With the help of MSE Undergraduate Program Coordinator, Vicky Lee, we were able to successfully mail lab kits to Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, New Zealand, and all across North America. Thanks to the MSE lab coordinator, Steve Szewcyk, students were still able to experience some aspects of our lab such as the brand new table-top Scanning Electron Microscope. Steve was able to collect fantastic images of the different materials and with the help of the Professor Karen Winey and the undergraduate TAs, Leah Narun and Hyunil Kim, we were able to collect a substantial amount of organic data students could us in their home labs.
Despite being stuck at home, it was evident that students were still highly motivated and eager to learn. The mask lab had a creative element to it where students were tasked with designing their own experiment to test the breathability (airflow) of different 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 evaluate airflow through the mask materials as measured by 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, students surprised us with their creativity 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 could meet and study together, is now empty. In an effort 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’ve tried recreated the MSE lounge through a department wide Slack channel where students are able to talk among themselves and with faculty about classes, careers, or pretty much anything they want. Additionally, we have started a new mentorship program where upperclassmen are paired with a freshman to help guide them through their first year of college. We have also been organizing panels about different career opportunities and paths to take after undergrad.
During these unprecedented times, we should all take some time to acknowledge and admire the efforts that students, faculty and staff have put in to create as similar of a learning environment as possible. Because of their perseverance and commitment to the department, all members of our community have been able to adapt to this new college experience.
Figure: Picture of all mask materials, picture of tabletop SEM, Pocket Microscope
written by Hyunil Kim, MSE ’23, ENGR 101 Teaching Assistant