Moving the Civil Engineering Classroom Online

March 26, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has halted normal life across the United States.

Remarkably though, the school year has not stopped; it’s adapted.

Even as social distancing has effectively barred side-by-side classroom instruction, educators and students at universities across the country have moved the classroom online.

The logistics of adjustment

At the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, the provost decided March 11 – relatively early compared with other schools – to move the remainder of the semester to a remote learning model.

So Camilla Saviz, Ph.D., P.E., ENV SP, F.ASCE, professor and chair of civil engineering at Pacific, had about a week and a half to alter her post–spring break course plans. Webex and Zoom are suddenly much greater parts of her life than they were a month ago.

“We’ve gotten up to speed very quickly,” Saviz said. “All of my colleagues and myself, we’ve revised our syllabi and revising our expectations to focus on the topics that are critical. Some other topics that may have been nice to have or that we can cover in subsequent classes are getting pushed to later in the semester or maybe won’t be covered at all.”

Some courses continue synchronously – at the same time on the same day of the week they were offered earlier in the semester, only now as online webcasts. But Saviz is also recording her presentations and posting them to be accessed by students at any time. The pandemic has produced too many unique considerations not to provide the asynchronous option.

Camilla Saviz takes her instruction online at the University of the Pacific. PHOTO: Camilla Saviz

Saviz has one student who returned home to France, eight hours ahead of California. She has another student whose work for a county agency marks her as “essential,” so she can’t attend school during the day anymore.

Across the country in Philadelphia, Drexel University has made a similar adjustment to online everything.

“I think it’s gone smoothly,” said Charles Haas, Ph.D., F.ASCE, Drexel’s head of the civil, architectural and environmental engineering department.

“We’re doing weekly virtual coffee hours by Zoom for faculty and department staff. At the college level, we’re having weekly department head meetings by Zoom. We’re all accessible by Microsoft Teams, so communication is very quick.”

Navigating the necessary technology comes second nature for this generation of students. But there are other adjustments to manage.

Sandra Choice, for example, is a third-year student at Santa Rosa Junior College accustomed to working out chemistry formulas at a quiet desk on campus. And now?

“I’m actually at my kitchen table,” Chance said. “And my little sister (14 years old) is at a tiny desk in the corner, doing her homework.”

Erick D. Moreno Rangel is a junior studying civil engineering at Oregon State University. He finished winter term by doing all his final exams online and now will be taking all of his spring courses remotely.

He’s still on campus but the students have been told to stay inside unless they are getting groceries or going to the doctor.

“It’s been a bit crazy,” Moreno Rangel said. “But in the end I think it will be a smooth transition. For me, I’m able to focus more in a classroom setting than at home. So I will have to adjust to that.”

Saviz said she’s been using principles she learned at ASCE ExCEED workshops to help bring these online lessons to life.

“How can I adapt those messages to this new world I live in now? How can I incorporate demos and student engagement into the synchronous classes I’m teaching so I’m not just a talking head in a video?” Saviz said.

“It’s going to be an ongoing experiment. And, really, it’s all about student learning and how we make it effective even – or maybe especially – given these new challenges.”

University of Louisville engineering student Sophie Lipomanis has brought her co-op work back home to New Jersey this spring. PHOTO: Sophie Lipomanis

Staying on track

This was not how Sophie Lipomanis envisioned her spring semester.

Not even a little bit.

Lipomanis, a sophomore civil engineering student in the J.B. Speed School of Engineering at the University of Louisville, began an internship in January at Stacy and Witbeck Inc. in Seattle, the first of three co-ops she’ll do as part of her school’s program.

Seattle, as we now know, was the first U.S. coronavirus epicenter. So here is Lipomanis, living three time zones away from her family in New Jersey, alone with her dog in a short-term lease apartment, being told that she needs to work from home because of health concerns.

“Everything started happening so fast,” Lipomanis said. “And not being in the office was kind of scary. So I communicated with our project manager and my supervisor – fantastic people, we came up with a solution during that two-week period before employees were asked not to come in.”

Lipomanis was able to shift the focus of her co-op to a document mitigation project, working on a construction project master index for the firm. Crucially, she can do the work remotely.

She returned home to New Jersey this week, completing a five-day drive across the country, complete with a road closure and snowstorm in Utah along the way.

“I’m lucky. I’m able to still learn on my co-op and keep working with this document,” Lipomanis said.

“I’m more nervous about other students who are in different stages of their program at my school. Will their co-ops still be valid? And what happens to our classes? Because we have all these prerequisites that define your semesters after that next co-op. There is a lot of concern about how this is going to affect people in the long term.

“It’s a rough time right now.”

Erick D. Moreno Rangel is still on campus at Oregon State University, but he’ll be doing his work this spring from home. PHOTO: Erick D. Moreno Rangel

Learning outcomes

As students like Lipomanis try to find answers to the many questions COVID-19 has created surrounding coursework and internships, instructors like Saviz also worry about the potential learning gaps.

“Our institution serves a lot of first-generation college students, and we’ve seen issues with students who don’t have internet access or laptops,” Saviz said. “And now they’ve gone from a very structured organization of scheduled classes to a more open model. Big picture, I’m afraid of students getting lost and struggling and giving up just because of technological issues, lack of resources, being overwhelmed or an inability to get help – and that’s apart from any health issues their families may be experiencing.”

There also is the issue of lab courses.

For graduate students, closed labs could mean significant delays to their personal timelines. And for undergraduates, this semester may simply be unique in its lack of hands-on training.

“How do you do laboratories online? There will be reliance on some YouTube stuff out there, other videos. It’s certainly not going to be the same as physically getting in and mixing a batch of concrete, for example,” Haas said.

“So what that means for learning outcomes is going to be interesting to follow. I don’t think we know. Many people would be adamant that students who don’t get their hands dirty or wet don’t really have a full educational experience.

“And I think this will be an interesting test of that theory as to whether or not that’s necessary or can be gained some other way. I just don’t think we know.”

In the meantime, Haas, Saviz, Moreno Rangel, Chance, Lipomanis and all the other civil engineering educators and students out there will be doing their best to make this strange time of transition as painless as possible.

“Our faculty has really rallied together, and I hope that is true for all universities,” Saviz said. “I’m sure people are rising to the occasion for this.

“We’re committed to the idea that this is what the semester is going to be. So let’s go use the best tools available to make learning as effective as possible for our students.”

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