Engineering a better lab experience
Before COVID-19 stopped time last year, Kevin Young’s Civil and Environmental Engineering 2814 course ran like clockwork.
As exact as the subject matter, the four-credit class for CEE sophomores featured precise in-person lectures by the Virginia Tech assistant professor of practice, plus seven surveying labs. Each lab began with an indoor 45-minute introduction by his graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), after which the students formed into teams, gathered their equipment, and headed outdoors to perform a series of assigned surveying tasks.
In late January 2020, Young began hearing about this coronavirus, but its significance was confined to his lectures for a different class that dealt with financial analyses of engineering projects. It wasn’t until the March 11 announcement that in-person classes were going online that “it became real,” Young said. “It was a moment of shock, there’s no two ways about that.”
Like teachers around the world, Young adapted the best he could to the mandated COVID-driven instructional model. But his CEE 2814 lab? That cherished, hands-on fieldwork got confined to the computer screen, too.
Dissatisfied with the new normal, Young spent summer 2020 applying his 11 years of professional engineering experience and nine years as a Tech instructor to rework the lab component of his CEE 2814 course. He analyzed the seven labs to determine which could be a) delivered virtually without compromising educational value; b) conducted safely in-person; and c) completed in a socially distant manner.
Rather than his students working in close-contact teams, Young decided to assign each student to a single role for each lab to ensure physical distancing — project manager, instrument operator, note taker, rod person, and chain person. Over the course of the semester, they would then rotate through those roles.
Young developed video production skills to record not only his classroom lectures but also the prelab instructions that his GTAs formerly delivered in-person.
The result? A comprehensive revision of the CEE 2814 lab experience and the development of a lab safety policy that Virginia Tech’s Environmental Health and Safety team approved immediately, complimenting its detail and thoroughness.
“The Civil and Environmental Engineering Measurements course taught by Kevin is an integral part of our department’s curriculum,” said Department Head Mark Widdowson. “Every CEE student takes his class, so it was vital to find a way to continue the hands-on approach that the class is known for in the midst of the pandemic. The reality is that hands-on work in the civil engineering field can be difficult to teach virtually. Kevin put in an incredible effort to deliver this course in-person safely and efficiently.”
Still, when fall semester began with CEE 2814 lab being one of the university’s few in-person course offerings, some engineering students seemed skeptical. Only 88 registered — about half the number of the course’s last in-person offering. “I think a lot of students were reluctant to take the class and postponed in hopes classes were going to be in-person in the spring,” Young said.
But Young’s on-paper plans worked even better in-person. Students were able to watch his prelab instructional videos “on demand” multiple times, so they were more prepared and professional when they arrived for lab. (He now has more than 60 videos to his credit, including those produced for CEE 2814 and other courses that he instructs.)
Freed from their in-person lecture responsibilities, GTAs Daniel E. Szalecki and Carl Miller were able to devote more time to working directly — while, of course, distantly — with students on the hands-on field portion of the labs.
“When tasked with the challenge to provide CEE 2814 students with a great lab experience while still adhering to and raising safety guidelines, Kevin paved the way,” said Szalecki. “Leading our team, Kevin provided a stellar framework that allowed us to still teach our lab students to the same level, while making sure that everyone stayed safe.”
Young in turn praised his GTAs: “These grad students that lead labs are fresh out of undergrad. It’s a big responsibility leading instruction and field activities. I’m basically alleviating a third of their responsibilities so they have more time to help out students with that aspect of the lab.”
Feedback from those 88 students was both positive and appreciative.
“While I was hesitant at first,” wrote student Aimee Marceau, “the lab portion of the class maintained physical distancing and was conducted entirely outdoors, which eased my fears. Kevin did a fantastic job of understanding the pressures put on students by distance learning and structured his assignments in a way that helped to prevent overwhelming us and allowed for online teamwork."
Added Tyler Bledsoe, “Even in the era of COVID, whenever I had any questions regarding the CEE 2814 labs, Mr. Young and the lab GTAs were always supportive and approachable, whether it was during lab time, by email, or during office hours. I loved surveying and the lab portion of this class!”
The experience was equally rewarding for Young: “The students were really thankful for the opportunity to get in-person instruction. They’re just not always thriving in the online world. They want to engage, learn and grow with their peers.”
Spring semester required the same social distancing requirements, but this time enrollment in CEE 2814 more than doubled to 199. While all are hopeful that fall 2021 will see a return to a pre-COVID world, Young is personally pleased about the instructional changes he’s engineered for his class.
“It’s been one of those things that’s made me wonder why I wasn’t doing some of this all along,” he said. “COVID served as a catalyst to make this happen.”
It turns out the new normal — at least for the students, graduate assistants, and professor in CEE 2814 — has made for a good time.
— Written by Michael Hemphill