Hitting the Reset Button on Intro to Engineering

Faculty adopt new strategies to explore the design process through student-focused, hands-on projects—despite restraints imposed by COVID-19

The kit given to students enrolled in Introduction to Engineering includes an Arduino microcontroller board, thumb joystick, light, touch and temperatures sensors, a mini screwdriver, and cables to connect everything.

Part of an occasional series of stories on how faculty in the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering are adapting to virtual and hybrid formats in the time of COVID-19. Read an earlier story about the School of Engineering here.

This fall, some 300 students are enrolled in Introduction to Engineering, but it’s hardly a one-size-fits-all lecture. A gateway course for aspiring Tufts engineers, “EN1” offers 12 different project-based sections that deftly balance big objectives: appeal to lively ‘what-if’ minds of freshmen through team-centric, hands-on projects that anchor engineering in everyday life, build student confidence and deepen curiosity for larger challenges ahead, and reveal the principles at work in different engineering disciplines.

Engineering in the Kitchen, for example, explores engineering through the lens of food and kitchen gadgets as an engaging introduction to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Bridges for Resilient Cities spans concepts important to research and development going on in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. Molecular concepts within the context of coffee brewing are among the lessons in Coffee Engineering, co-led by faculty from the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

The course’s long legacy of innovation, however, had additional challenges this fall, given constraints brought about by strict public health protocols required of a global pandemic. The context of COVID-19 prompted EN1 faculty to recalibrate and in some cases wholly rethink and retool their approach.

“EN1 instructors have an extra responsibility to engage and excite students about engineering, because we want those students to make the right decisions about how they’ll spend the next three years,” said Ethan Danahy, E00, EG02, and EG07, research associate professor at the Center for Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), with a secondary appointment in the Department of Computer Science. In his role as coordinator of first-year engineering courses, he also oversees all EN1 sections, which include elements common to any career in engineering: design, group work, project-based assignments, and ethics. And he has a special appreciation for that philosophy, having taken the course himself as a Tufts undergraduate, shortly after it was created by then-dean Ioannis Miaoulis, E83, AG86, EG87, E12P, E15P, professor of mechanical engineering, CEEO co-founder, and advocate for teaching engineering through hands-on projects.

Some EN1 faculty, he said, are retaining in-person classes and labs, adhering to social distancing and mask protocols. In his own Simple Robotics section, for example, students are in-class constructing and programming robots using a LEGO-based robotics platform.

But others are offering hybrid and virtual options that still preserve project-based, hands-on learning by leveraging online tools and kits to their advantage. 

Daniele Lantagne, professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has shaped a virtual experience that puts students in the driver’s seat. She’s teaching Engineering in Crises, which examines the role of engineering in four units or emergency case studies, starting with the Haiti earthquake/cholera outbreak—a case that looks at complex issues around infrastructure, water, and the outbreak of cholera. Another unit has a similar all-encompassing perspective on an emergency of unprecedented proportions: the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident triggered by the earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Tōhoku, Japan.

Lantagne is providing pre-recorded lectures and readings via Canvas, and after viewing, students send her a reflections email. Overall, she’s aiming to ignite active learning by “flipping” the classroom: during class time students are divided into two cohorts, and each has 35 minutes of Zoom class time during which they lead a discussion about the topics. Lantagne also offers to be available for in-person conversations during office hours—with those sessions now meeting outside.

“The most important things to keep in mind for remote learning are flexibility, clear communication, and offering lots of room for connections and discussions in smaller groups,” she said. “I want students to think critically and to be able to articulate their thoughts and reactions to material, which is critical today, as we are studying engineering in crises during a global pandemic, and into the future, for whatever emergencies befall us.”

In her hybrid classroom, Briana Bouchard, E14, EG18, uses a large screen to display the faces of remote students on Zoom in tandem with an in-class camera so remote students can see the in-person students. Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts UniversityIn her hybrid classroom, Briana Bouchard, E14, EG18, uses a large screen to display the faces of remote students on Zoom in tandem with an in-class camera so remote students can see the in-person students. Photo: Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Briana Bouchard, E14, EG18, a student advisor and part-time lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, had a chance to warm up to remote learning this summer, teaching a fully virtual Internet of Things (IoT) course to both college and high school students. 

She has high hopes for the customized kits she handed out to each student in her EN1 section, Inventing Smart Toys for Kids. Students will design compelling toys that build on IoT (basically any technology connected to the internet) and, more importantly, “see the world through the eyes of a child.”

The EN1 kits include, among other useful devices, an Arduino microcontroller board, thumb joystick, light, touch and temperatures sensors, a mini screwdriver, “and a handful of cables to connect everything together,” she said.

Most critically for classes where students can’t work side-by side, the kits empower each student to work with a team member remotely.

“What is most important to me is trying to maintain the collaborative nature of this course,” Bouchard said. “I didn’t want to lose that. One of our main focuses in EN1 is making sure our students learn how to work on an engineering team. That experience sets them up for what is going to happen throughout their four years here.”

Also important is how she set up her hybrid classroom for twice-weekly lectures. In-person students are the required six feet apart and masked, but in addition Bouchard makes virtual students feel like they are also there in Anderson Hall. She uses a mobile television to display their Zoom faces, in tandem with an in-class camera, “so when in-person students were introducing themselves at the first class, we could move it around so remote students could see them,” she said.

Thomas Vandervelde, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, brings a broad perspective to Introduction to Renewable Energy, including the examination of the way the media portrays energy technologies. “While going off the grid sounds like a great idea, it is a complex problem to be solved,” according to his class description.

Labs will give students a sense for the energy generation process and its complexity, and since they’re all recorded and posted online, students can watch and analyze the data independently. Vandervelde has invited energy researchers from around Tufts to record talks about their research and virtually attend and lead discussions about their research topic.

As for online lectures—he doesn’t see how his students, restless even when sitting in a classroom normally, would be riveted. “The 75-minute lecture would have my students checking their email,” he said. Instead, lectures are now asynchronous, freeing class time for lively—and fruitful— group discussion and problem solving. These follow the civics engagement model, a process in which people take collective action to address issues of public concern. Students break into like-minded groups then come back to the full group to discuss which strategy is best.

“The students are not empty vessels when they come to class,” he said. “This not only means that they have previous knowledge on some of the topics, but also they have biases and false information. I seek to get them to confront their biases and reflect on them as well. This helps them to approach problems more objectively in the future.”

The future of high-tech transportation frames a section on the Impact of Self-Driving Cars, taught by James Intriligator, who runs the Tufts Human Factors Engineering program, and Harold Miller-Jacobs, a Human Factors engineer for many decades. The class examines all aspects of what they call “the coming revolution” of self-driving cars and aims to sensitize students “to the myriad of complexities that this involves and the impact of that engineering on the rest of society,” said Miller-Jacobs.

Technique number one was tossing out the traditional PowerPoint they prepare in advance that outlines key points. “What we’re hoping to do now is ask questions and elicit answers from the class,” said Miller-Jacobs, “and the students themselves will build the slides.”

Technique number two: they are assigning students to be scribes who record brainstorming comments on a class-wide Miro board—a shared, digital white board. It’s another tool to be as interactive as they be in a class that Miller-Jacobs sees as inherently fascinating and ripe for discourse of varying opinions. “I happen to be a big advocate for self-driving cars,” he said, “but our society has lots of questions and assumptions that we need to discuss and debate.”

The co-teachers are not hesitant to take on fears and controversy. In one of their first classes, Miller-Jacobs ask students to ponder a scenario where the Uber they’ve called shows up and it’s self-driving. “I ask them: Are you going to get in it or not?” he said. “There are students who say, ‘No way,’ and others say, ‘Of course.’ And we had a great discussion around technology, but we also talked about the complexities of instituting these, how you handle cyberattacks, and so forth.”

He and Intriligator will draw on external guest speakers from their many years in industry to share their professional perspectives, including a newly blind engineer. “He just can't wait for self-driving cars because he can’t get into a car now without having a driver, but he looks forward to the day when he doesn’t need one." 

Why does this section—or for that matter all the sections of EN1—matter?

“The reason a course like EN1 works well is that it exposes freshmen to engineering concepts” that work across multiple disciplines, he said. But perhaps most importantly, “it shows that engineering is not something within itself, is not self-contained. Whatever path a student chooses in engineering, that choice is going to have an impact on the rest of society. In EN1, no matter the format or the focus of a section, want them to understand and appreciate that perspective and that responsibility.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.

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