Educators around the world have spent much of the summer preparing for an academic year unlike any other in history. Long before MIT announced its plans for the fall semester in early July, professors and faculty at the Institute had spent weeks revamping their fall classes for a number of scenarios. With the majority of courses delivered remotely and extensive security protocols in place for courses with in-person components, faculty have had to get creative.
“Our teaching team is stubborn and we weren’t going to give up,” says Nevan Hanumara SM ’06, PhD ’12, researcher and instructor in class 2.75 (Medical device design). “We decided that we needed to find a way to provide a good educational experience no matter where the students are – they could be at home with their families, sharing a dining table with roommates, or in the dorms.”
Like Hanumara and the 2.75 teaching team, professors and staff at MIT have had to completely overhaul their courses to be entirely remote or to ensure that anything in person is done in a way that ensures student safety. and the community at large. The practical and project-based nature of many mechanical engineering courses has posed a unique challenge to faculty and staff in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE).
Maximize laboratory time
Students in Class 2.008 (Design and Manufacturing II) have the option of attending some components of the course in person or taking it entirely remotely. To ensure everyone’s safety, the 2.008 teaching team plans to maximize laboratory time.
All parts of the classroom course, including lectures, will be remote, as has been the case in recent years in 2.008. During the lab games, teams of around five students will be tasked with designing and building 50 yo-yos using injection molding with the help of staff from MIT’s Manufacturing and Productivity Lab (LMP). .
Joseph Wight, Head of the Manufacturing Lab, working with 2.008 staff and other MechE instructors, developed a system to ensure that students are thoroughly familiar with the lab equipment before entering LMP in broadcasting instructions remotely before the time of the laboratory in person.
“I have cameras pointing at the spindles, machines and screens that control the machines we use in the course,” says Wight. “The goal is to make the students as comfortable as possible before entering the store so that when they arrive, they know which machine they are going to use and how to use it.
Students who are on campus and participate in in-person components are encouraged to relay details of their lab experiments with members of their remote team.
Outside of the lab, Wight and the rest of the teaching team are asking students to use more computer-aided design and simulation software to engage students remotely and add more engagement to the whole process of design and manufacture.
“We’re going to do our best to give the students what they need to complete this course and have a great experience, but the caveat is that it will be different,” Wight adds. “In a way, we are preparing students for remote work, which will be part of the career they choose for the future.”
Mimicking the hybrid model of some remote and in-person employees in the industry is something the 2.75 (Medical Device Design) education team is also exploring this semester.
Sending of “mechanical gadgets” kits
Like Wight and staff 2.008, the team of teachers at 2.75 designed a course that could be taken entirely remotely or with some components in person.
“We realized that we had the opportunity for a unique blended learning experience with some team members remotely and others in person, as would be the case in the industry these days,” explains Hanumara.
Wherever the students were this semester, they received a hardware kit – or “mechanical gizmos” – assembled by Alexander Slocum ’82 SM ’83 PhD ’85, Professor Walter M. May and A. Hazel May, and his wife Debra Slocum SM ’89, as well as a basic electronics kit, designed by seasoned instructor Gim Hom ’71 SM ’72 EE ’73 SM ’73. Using the materials from the kits, students will assemble small, precision wooden devices and their own heart rate monitors. In most cases, students won’t know what they can use the Kit of Materials to build until the lecture has begun, broadcast live from Slocum’s home workshop.
As in a typical semester, students in 2.75 will also choose from a list of projects to design and build a prototype medical device. This year, students can choose from projects led by Giovanni Traverso, career development professor Karl Van Tassel (1925); Ellen Roche, Career Development Professor at the WM Keck Foundation; and others proposed by clinician-collaborators that the team has assembled.
For Hanumara, this semester offers an opportunity to gather information on how to make education more accessible for geographically isolated communities or for individuals with inflexible schedules.
“Fall 2020 is going to be different, but it’s an incredible experience of new teaching methods,” he adds. “What we learn from this semester at MIT will continue.”
Prioritize self-managed projects
Technical instructor Steve Banzaert and the team of professors and instructors in class 2.678 (Electronics for Mechanical Systems), took lessons from the Spring 2020 unit of the course to develop the plans for the fall semester. The class is taught entirely remotely.
“Our big takeaway from spring was that in order for students to get the most out of the material we wanted, we had to transform the class to focus on more independent project work,” Banzaert explains.
As a result, students will be invited to complete open projects with longer time frames than usual. Using a kit of materials sent to them over the summer, students will build devices and circuit boards that will help them learn about the physical phenomena associated with electronics.
To support students in starting their self-managed projects, the teaching team has set up a “call center” to answer students’ questions at any time of the day throughout the week.
“Over the years we have tried to create a welcoming and friendly community in this classroom. This is what I hope to translate the most into this online space, ”adds Banzaert.
Build community in synchronous small group meetings
Community is the focus of another Mechanical Engineering course this semester – 2.001 (Mechanics and Materials I).
For many sophomores, 2.001 serves as an introduction to mechanical engineering at MIT. New bonds and friendships are formed during lectures, labs and recitations.
“This classroom is where the MechE community is formed. The students are starting to get to know each other and to work together ”, explains Simona Socrate, lecturer. “With students isolated in their own homes, bringing this sense of community is one of our biggest challenges. “
To help foster this community while the course is delivered entirely remotely, Socrates and his fellow instructors offer a number of synchronous small group meetings. Using whiteboard apps, teachers will interact with small groups of students to teach them basic concepts.
These synchronous meetings are supported by a fun, daily kit of materials and engineering components that have been selected to illustrate key concepts in the course and shipped to students this summer. The kit also includes custom parts, made by Professor Ely Sachs, to allow students to perform the course’s “Discovery Labs” in their own homes. While the instructor teaches a concept of structural mechanics on Zoom, students can open their kit and refer to the object in question. Materials include Small Pool Noodles, Exercise Bands, Twizzlers, Locking Tongs, Finger Traps, and Silly Putty.
“We try to make synchronous time a combination of learning and personal interactions. The material kits help us all interact online and make class time more engaging, ”says Socrates.
Instructors like Socrates may not be able to predict how the Covid-19 pandemic will alter the rest of the academic year, but they will continue to innovate and develop new teaching methods to provide students with the best possible educational experience under all circumstances.