Engineering Success in the Virtual Classroom

Perspectives from the School of Engineering as faculty hone ideas, practices, and tools that creatively define online learning this fall
“Kristen and I have talked about how to measure our effectiveness, and we concluded that we succeed or fail based on what kind of community we build," said Brandon Stafford about a class he's teaching with Kristen Wendell, AG11. Photo: Alonso Nichols
“Kristen and I have talked about how to measure our effectiveness, and we concluded that we succeed or fail based on what kind of community we build," said Brandon Stafford about a class he's teaching with Kristen Wendell, AG11. Photo: Alonso Nichols
September 3, 2020

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This is one of an occasional series of stories on how faculty in Arts, Sciences, and Engineering are adapting courses to virtual and hybrid formats this fall. Read an earlier story about the School of Arts and Sciences here.

Tufts School of Engineering this fall is incorporating hybrid and virtual courses into the curriculum, and for some, it’s a valued opportunity to rethink how to deliver material and how to engage students.

“Many students are able to leverage the immediacy of the digital platform and its lower barriers with ease,” noted Kristen Wendell, AG11, a professor of mechanical engineering with a keen interest in how students learn; she is also an adjunct associate professor of education. “We’re teaching a generation that doesn’t want to get lost in technology; they want to combine it and use it to foster personal interaction.”

That mindset, Wendell said, can open new ways of teaching. For her part, it has sparked lively conversations with colleagues about course design. “While COVID has placed a constraint on the teaching system, it has been a really productive constraint in some ways,” she said. “We are more thoughtful about how we find out what students are thinking and how they are progressing.”

She’s not alone in her thinking. Tufts Now reached out to faculty at the School of Engineering to learn how the transition has provided similar inspiration to three fall courses. Wendell and Ron Lasser, professor of the practice, shared the 2020 Henry and Madeline Fischer Award (Engineering’s “Teacher of the Year” prize). Ming Chow, E02, E04, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science, also won the award in 2016, followed in 2017 by the Lerman-Neubauer Prize for Outstanding Teaching and Advising.

Electromechanical Systems and Robotics 1 / Department of Mechanical Engineering

A solid grasp of basic electronics is handy knowledge for mechanical engineers, and that’s what Wendell and Brandon Stafford, a lecturer who oversees the makerspace known as the Nolop Fabrication, Analysis, Simulation, and Testing (FAST) Facility, focus on in this introductory-level course. Prior to the pandemic, students met in the Nolop makerspace surrounded by all the hardware and basic tools they needed. This year Wendell and Stafford, plus three learning assistants, are working on multiple online approaches, with a limited in-person classroom opportunity.

Hands-on learning is still very much the underlying foundation of the course. Students will build, test, and debug four increasingly complex circuit boards, with the first three projects completed individually and the last one in two-person teams. The entire class of about 66 undergraduates is divided into four Zoom discussion pods for twice weekly conversations, and they can connect with each other and their teachers anytime on Slack.

Stafford, in keeping with his own passion for making (and un-making) things, will also stream electronic tear-downs. “Basically, I take things apart, see what’s inside, and stream the whole thing on Twitch,” he said. “I’m enthusiastic about it.”

It speaks to a commitment to be as real and authentic as possible with students—and vice versa. The team designed weekly assignments in which students deliver a quick, one-minute video in response to an open conceptual question related to electronics, such as “What can you get more energy out of: a three-volt battery or a 100-microfarad capacitor—and why?” These prompts not only gauge depth of understanding, but also maintain quality interactions.

“We want to know the students as people,” Wendell said, adding that the videos do double duty by giving students the experience of organizing their thoughts and translating what they know—a skill useful for any future engineer. “It’s one example of how having to design for COVID helps us learn more about student thinking.”

Stafford agrees. “With online learning, we’re relying on new tools that will be better, in some ways, than our traditional approach, with regard to gauging student progress.”

“Kristen and I have talked about how to measure our effectiveness,” he added, “and we concluded that we succeed or fail based on what kind of community we build. If we build a strong community where the students are engaged, then this is going to go really well. Community goes beyond the standard online tools and requires meeting students where they are.” 

He adopted Slack because students have the chat application on their phones. “They send me messages all day long via Slack,” said Stafford, who created a Slack channel for Nolop “zealots” to talk about 3D printers (among other things) while the popular facility is closed. 

The goal of community, reiterated Wendell, informs the course as a whole. “We want our students to feel like they’re learning with people who care about them and where they are in their learning progress. We want them to know there are people they can call on for help. And we want to know what kind of help they need.”

Senior Design Project / Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

This past spring, Ron Lasser, professor of the practice, learned his first and most important lesson of online teaching: “You have to flex.”

The insight came soon after his best intentions fell flat. “I gave a lecture for senior design seminar with some flip charts for about 15 minutes and then stopped the class. Everyone looked totally bored,” he recalled.

When he asked for their honest feedback, they shared several ideas, and ultimately they “flipped” the classroom to come up with a more engaging approach to the material: a storytelling show-and-tell model that involved real problems in the real world. “And that’s where real cognition began.”

He has a strong commitment to engaging students, and that means a true partnership—a two-way dialogue that’s “extremely interactive and participatory,” he said. The trick to that partnership is relevance.

“You have to fit a problem or topic into their social and emotional context,” he said. “Students need to see the value of the problem. It excites their curiosity.”

To that end, for this fall’s senior design project, which is required for electrical and computer engineering students, he buttresses a weekly a PowerPoint with something new: a 15-minute podcast about a specific design challenge.

“What I like about the podcast is that it allows the student the freedom to listen to the audio anywhere, anytime, and multiple times,” he said. “From there they will create certain materials in a very descriptive way to bring to class that everyone will discuss. “

Another new feature involves asking School of Engineering alumni to share their stories with students as part of the Zoom class. Those personal stories, he said, bring the real world into sharper view.

“I know seniors are thinking a lot about life after Tufts,” he said. “It will be great to hear about different careers and get advice from those who have already made their way in the working world. It’s another way to engage students around relevance.”

There remains, of course, the expectation that students create quality senior design projects themselves. They can opt for a hardware or a software project, and with remote learning, the actual hands-on work introduces kits that provide test equipment like oscilloscopes and volt meters. The kits allow the students to set up a lab at home, and Lasser is optimistic that seniors, as natural inventors and tinkerers, will be adept at making projects on their desktops and kitchen tables.

As a teacher, Lasser has had “several epiphanies” about online teaching since the spring and now is an unabashed evangelist for virtual learning.

“I thought about how Socrates and Plato discussed abstract concepts such as democracy, ethics, and virtue, and look at how they taught: Plato sat on a rock, and Socrates drew in the dirt with a stick and asked questions,” he said. “I don’t see anything different between me asking a question over Zoom and using an Apple Pencil to draw a picture on a screen.”

“If we can adapt to the technology and the venue, which I believe we can, from an emotional standpoint, then we’re going to be successful. I predict that when we go back to in-person, I’ll stick with the online best practices so my classroom can be even more dynamic in person than it was in the past.”

Introduction to Security and Senior Capstone / Department of Computer Science

When COVID-19 forced classes online, it was a sudden transition for many, but for Ming Chow, E02, E04, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Computer Science, it was no big deal.

Chow has taught online classes in web programming and cybersecurity since the summer of 2016. He’s more than comfortable with the approach. “If I didn’t love online teaching, I would not be foregoing a summer vacation,” he said. Point made.

Online teaching, he said, is not that different from a dynamic classroom experience, but it does offer advantages. For starters, it solves problems of limited physical space, which is of some concern to his department, the most popular major now at Tufts for both Engineering and Arts and Sciences undergraduates.

“In Halligan Hall, the computer lab can fit only 30 people, and most of the classes, especially the core and intro classes, have to be held elsewhere,” he said. “My classes all exceed 50 students. By going online, the physical classroom constraint goes away.”

He’s also sensitive to the fact that not all students are natural-born extroverts. Some students are habitually hesitant to answer—or ask—a question. His in-person classes can sometimes set up a divide between the two groups.

“I ask a lot of questions because I like to engage with the students. But I can sense the dread of the quieter students,” he said. “Online classes are different and often our discussions are even better than in-person. Students can chime in anonymously—though they’re not anonymous to me. So they feel more comfortable, and often they’re writing more fleshed out questions and answers, which is a powerful reward for me, given my style.”

That style, he said, reflects a philosophy shared across the School of Engineering: students learn best by doing, and by extension, thinking through problems for themselves. How does he bring energy to that experience?

“Every week in my online and in-person class, there is a hands-on lab you do on your own time,” he said. “In my summer security class, students had to break into a system and find every vulnerability in that system. I put together an infrastructure in the cloud. Students had to go at it with their hammers and break it. And they did!”

If hands-on learning is his number one priority, number two is asking questions. A lot of questions.

“There are no lectures for my online classes,” he said. “There are videos, but at the most they’re 10 minutes long. I give a short talk on a particular topic that also includes a demonstration. I try to make the videos digestible for learning and low-definition because not everybody has a great internet connection.”

He has another “secret” he’s ready to share, one central to student-teacher rapport. “I make it very clear to students that on day one, you ask a question, you’ll get an answer,” he said. “You can ask me a question anytime. It doesn’t matter. Go ahead, ask me a question at 2 a.m. My average response time is 35 minutes.”

Perhaps the most significant lesson he’s learned from teaching online is to set expectations upfront. “I have learned to be very clear about how much time is needed to complete an assignment, as it prevents problems” around time management and, potentially, a poor grade, he said. “I shared this idea with the entire School of Engineering because I believe it’s one of the most important things we need to do when working remotely.”

This fall finds Chow teaching several courses, including Comp 116: Introduction to Security, billed as a “holistic and broad perspective on cybersecurity” that includes hands-on labs and projects. (By the end of the first week, students will learn Linux commands by playing Capture the Flags via OverTheWire.) It’s also a course that deploys the global reach of the internet; he purchased a domain, comp116.org, so that all content, most of the labs, readings, and presentations, are publicly available.

“I did this deliberately because we have desperate need for cyber security education—it’s an international problem,” he said. “I make my content available to students and the world free of charge to help close that gap. It’s also part of a conscious decision to show that Tufts is building a security program here because we take this problem seriously.”

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