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Department News

Zooming In on the Department's New Normal

motor cycle helmet

For the past two weeks, the reopened Harvey’s Cafe has been blessing (or cursing) the Engineering Building with the smell of bacon, but that’s not the only change in the air. Throughout the building, doors remind visitors to wear face coverings, the floors direct them to stand six feet apart, and the bathroom sinks re-emphasize the timeless need to wash those hands. Not only does it look different, but for students and professors in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, it feels different. The classes have turned upside down.

This semester, the department has offered primarily blended classes - a format defined by each professor’s interpretation. In Electronic Circuit Design and Signals and Systems, the classes divide into halves that alternate attending the lectures in-person and through cameras and speakers. Dr. Daniel Smalley uses a similar layout for his Electromagnetics class but allocates every Friday lecture to Zoom. For Creation 101, an unalterably kinesthetic course, he teaches an online lecture on Mondays and repeats his in-person lab demonstrations four times a week to diffuse the flow of student attendees.

Although the blended classes have worked fine so far, they have their challenges. Notifications from Zoom chat bars distract professors during their lectures, and masks muffle their voices. Blended classes can cause disparities between students; as one student in junior core said, “it’s nice to be in class, but on the online days it’s easy to get left behind.” In fact, respondents in an informal survey said that given the circumstances, they think entirely remote instruction has worked best.

Lab assistance has also hit roadblocks. In the past, students could receive on-demand help from their TA’s in the open labs, but now, social distancing mandates making appointments over Zoom instead, and that inconvenience aside, trying to troubleshoot computer hardware over webcams is downright cumbersome. Now, everything takes more time and effort than before.

On a brighter note, Zoom classes have brought with them quirky elements of fun (or at least surprise). When online students speak to their professor and in-class peers, their voices come down from the speaker in what one student jokingly described as an ethereal experience. And although Dr. Smalley can no longer stage weekly Star Trek battles for his class audience, he has been having fun with the Star Ship Enterprise zoom background and a few special effects. He even prepared a spacesuit to wear to class once COVID cases exceed his threshold of comfort - made with a modified dune-buggy helmet, battery-powered air filter, plastic tube, and good old-fashioned engineering genius.

“I’m not sure how practical this is,” he said of his spacesuit, “but it does give me the opportunity to say ‘no matter how ridiculous you feel with a mask on, you can’t possibly look as ridiculous as me.’” He admits it’s not great for hearing or for keeping cool, but it illustrates the point. For as long as campus remains upside-down and inside-out, the people of the ECEn department will keep pressing on, making the most of a bad situation, and wearing even the most ridiculous of masks so that the learning can continue.