Teaching in a Pandemic: Bring an Open Mind—and Maybe a Karaoke Machine

Monday, March 15, 2021
Image shows students working in a lab with a professor giving them instructions.

COVID-19 turned teaching on its head. Students lost some opportunities, and faculty had to revamp teaching methods in record time. The upshot, say two Mechanical Engineering faculty, is continued student success and some adaptations that are likely to last.

The pandemic rocked students’ worlds as much as anyone’s. But as digital natives, Rose-Hulman students pivoted adroitly, adapting to virtual lectures and collaboration.

Some things seem to work better online, says Zac Chambers, professor of mechanical engineering. Rather than just the teacher hovering over a student’s laptop to view a CAD design or PowerPoint presentation, he says, “they share it with everyone.”

Miles Canino agrees. “One of the most astonishing things is how compassionate and understanding the students have been. The majority of our students are still engaging and succeeding within this new learning framework.”

The changes happened as fast as a spiking fever. “We were suddenly forced to go online,” says Chambers. “I had a week to take a section of the capstone course and put it online.” By contrast, it took two years to plan a “flipped” course in which students viewed lectures online and used in-person sessions for discussion and Q&A.

Chambers says he really enjoyed the hands-on, collaborative interaction with students in his pre-pandemic senior design course. Initially, they tried to keep that model while observing social distancing. “I had to borrow a karaoke machine to be heard,” he says (presumably for speaking, not singing.) “That didn’t work well.”

One hard reality of the pandemic is the loss of some out-of-class experiences, such as competing against other schools’ engineering teams. “It’s been a real heartbreaker,” says Chambers. Last year’s Design/Build/Fly team was perhaps the best ever, but the pandemic hit two weeks before the competition.

Both expect some COVID-prompted changes to linger. Canino says many classes may stay flipped post-pandemic, maintaining asynchronous content in some form. He looks for many students to keep using Microsoft Teams for quick, informal student-instructor interaction. Chambers notes that virtual meetings may prep students for the working styles of global corporations.

The student’s nimble adaptation, says Canino, “is as much a testament to the quality of students at Rose-Hulman as it is the sense of community and family that has been fostered.”