Innovation in Remote Engineering Coursework

COVID-19 continues to pose new challenges, but it reminds us of the vital contributions of engineers—whether in new technologies for decontamination, rapid design and manufacturing of PPE, or in addressing physical and digital infrastructure needs. Given the critical part that engineers will likely play in making us safer in the new normal, the faculty are busy making sure that students learn what they need to succeed and deliver on that expectation when they go out into the workforce.

The college and its faculty have made some innovative adjustments so that education is not hampered by the coursework format. With a Spring and Summer virtual format under its belt, here is a look into some of the alterations that will carry through to make learning engaging at Drexel Engineering this fall.

First Year Engineering Virtual Lab Experiences

Student with animatronic robot
For ENGR 113, Luke Simeone  built an animatronic R.O.B. from the Super Smash Brothers™ series.

In the spring, a Materials Science and Engineering section of First Year Engineering Design (ENGR 113) led by Assistant Professor Andrew Magenaufeatured a new, virtual wet-lab experience. Students learned to design formulations for industrially relevant polyurethane foams and discovered optimal formulations for minimizing cost and maximizing properties and performance. Students solved real-world formulation in a virtual format and competed for the best formulation by involving critical variables like analyzing density and compression data.

Similarly, the fall term first year design class (ENGR 111) will include provisions for both face to face and remote instruction. No matter which modality is used, hands on activities will be a key part of the class—in the lab or through kits mailed to students participating remotely.

For Fundamentals of Digital Design and Advanced Manufacturing (ENGR 113S) led by Associate Professor Antonios Kontsos, MEM-intensive sections are leveraging an Internet of Things (IoT) schema which allows remote access to manufacturing and prototyping equipment on campus. The pilot program allows students to have an experience using actual manufacturing equipment comparable to an on-campus experience. These classes are enhanced by the department’s investment in new resources and equipment to enrich undergraduate design and manufacturing curriculum.

CBE Engineering Design Goes Online

On the Senior Design front, Chemical and Biological Engineering (CHE471) is ready to go fully remote and synchronous, utilizing Zoom break-out rooms for recitations-team meetings. Plans are to potentially include limited access to the Senior Design Studio for small groups following CDC guidelines.

Engineering Courses Adapt to the Remote Classroom

Animatronic cat being built
Another project team from ENGR 113 built an animatronic Cheshire Cat form Alice in Wonderland. 

Video communication applications like Zoom have allowed numerous classes to adapt remotely in a seamless manner. Geological Principles for Infrastructure and Environmental Engineering (CAEE 212) taught by Dr. Patricia Gallagherwas already regularly taught in a partially flipped classroom format. This means that students typically watch recorded lectures prior to class and class time is spent in small groups completing activities related to that week’s topic. During the spring term, this course was successfully taught remotely via Zoom, with students watching recorded lectures before class meetings. Dr. Gallagher posted discussion questions on assigned topics for students to prepare answers, then class participation included break-out rooms where they shared with the class. Break-out rooms were also utilized to complete activities such as case studies and tutorials, as well as rock mechanics and mineral identification labs. Students reported the class was highly interactive, engaging and enjoyable despite the rapid transition to remote learning.

New online classes have also been created—Professor Franco Montalto, P.E. is teaching a special topics class, T580: Stormwater Planning in the Era of Climate Change. In this community-based learning class, Drexel students, Continuing Education Students and stormwater utility representatives collaborate to update stormwater planning criteria for seven stormwater utilities in the mid-Atlantic region based on the latest climate change projections. The class introduces students to state of the art use of climate data for use in water resource planning in an uncertain future. Students will present their findings at a public webinar for the utilities, who have signed MOUs with Drexel to be part of this exciting problem-based learning class.

It was a smooth switch for the Global Classroom, which was already partially online due to collaboration with students at the Politecnico di Milano (PoliMi). In the fall, the Global Classroom on Responsive Urban Environments (AE T480/580) will team Drexel students with PoliMi students to invent strategies for low energy, low carbon, sustainable cities. This offers superb training for students looking to work in a global economy in the future.

Turning Homes and Remote Spaces into Engineering Laboratories

Additionally, lab-based courses were altered with inventive solutions. The Chemical Engineering Mass Transfer Lab plans to ship analytical equipment necessary to convert student’s kitchens into engineering laboratories. Studies will cover the diffusion of soluble species through porous solids. In other words, students will be making well-controlled cups of coffee with electrical conductivity probes measuring the extent of coffee extraction. Kitchen scales, temperature probes, and burr grinders will be used to control and vary parameters such as particle size and extraction temperature. Students will then be able to answer questions about internal pore diffusion and external convective mass transfer about the coffee they produced.

Animatronic version of R2D2
An ENGR 113 team created an animatronic version of R2-D2 from Star Wars.

The Chemical Engineering Heat Transfer and Fluid Mechanics Labs will send students analytical equipment needed to use their home as an engineering laboratory. Equipment involves measuring surface and air temperatures, wind speeds, and volumetric flow rates. Students will investigate the heat flow in domestic air conditioners, fluid flow in residential piping, heat conduction through walls, and heat convection on inside and outside surfaces of their own living environments.

During the summer, Dynamic Systems Laboratory (MEM 351) and Control Applications of Digital Signal Processing (MEM 459) taught by Professor BC Chang saw students excited to receive embedded intelligent computer processing and control equipment kits by mail. They use these same kits in classes, for a comparable experience for a course which would traditionally be based in a lab.

Professor Chang is also supporting a project led by the College of Arts and Science and LeBow College of Business and coordinated by the Drexel Solutions Institute (DSI). Students in Professor Chang’s classes are using a new social networking app (POD) to assess their experiences in using the app to build social networks. As students continue remote learning and struggle to connect, this may help students who lost their co-op opportunities.

Associate Professor Caglan Kumbur and university award-winning graduate teaching fellow Lutfi Agartan are delivering new lab videos for Thermal and Fluid Science Laboratory (MEM 311). One student commented on the experience:
“I was very impressed with experiment video #1. Editing was well done and ensured the vide was not too long. Often I think professors forget our attention span after staring at a screen for hours, so a quick but thorough video is insightful and very enjoyable to watch.”

What’s next?

Safety and health of everyone remains paramount while the focus remains on providing quality in remote learning and working assiduously to offer the option of socially-distanced in-person experiences—whenever safe to do so. No matter the format, Drexel Engineers will be well equipped to help civilization find ways to adapt and thrive.

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