Parts of a Whole
Sophomore engineering design course gets hands-on online
Thursday, May 14, 2020
Jack Leifers engineering class on Zoom looking at the design of a circuitry box

Moving my lecture-based Structural Dynamics course to a distance-delivery mode wasn’t a difficult stretch… Once I bought my “Zoom-friendly” home document projector, I was able to recreate my favorite form of lecturing, which includes annotating my own hand-written notes in real time. But Sophomore Design? How would we accomplish building and testing devices without working together in person?

For more than a decade, the centerpiece of Trinity’s two-course sophomore design sequence has involved group projects in which our students collaborate to design, build, test, and deliver prototypes geared towards assisting select workers at Goodwill Industries of San Antonio. This year’s group of projects included optimizing layout and workflow through a retail and donations processing facility, designing a device to help workers hang donated clothing more quickly, and developing hardware and software to track and monitor “time of use” for lawn maintenance equipment. Ironically, the parts of each project most amenable to distributed group work—determination of specific objectives and goals, brainstorming, evaluation of ideas and selection of design approach—had already been mostly accomplished before courses moved online in March. What was left was the part of the work that most depends on close, in-person collaboration: building, testing, evaluating, and optimizing.

Students evaluate how a plastic lid designed for a circuitry fits into the build chamber of Jacob’s home 3D printer.

That’s where technology, commercial delivery services, and students’ individual capabilities (and home workshops) have proven indispensable. Trinity’s VDI remote desktop has maintained students’ access to specialized software, ensuring they can continue to make changes to their engineering drawings and models. I’ve packed up and dropped off components and half-built projects left on campus at the local UPS store for delivery to students. Our experienced shop technicians—Ryan Hodge, Ernest Romo, and Marc Carpenter—have provided 24-hour turnaround on newly fabricated components or needed parts.

For me, the best part of this process has been watching students’ collaboration and camaraderie grow and evolve over Zoom, despite our physical separation. Our once-per-week class meetings have consisted mostly of group work via Zoom’s breakout room function. I hop from room to room to brainstorm, answer questions, or just to see what’s going on. Many times, I’ve seen a student sharing his or her computer desktop. More recently I’ve seen various students on camera showing how their fabricated parts fit together. And other times I’ll hear students talking and laughing together—almost in the exact same way they did while huddled around their project table in the Engineering Design Cube before Spring Break.

Students collaborate to tweak the design of an enclosure for circuity designed to clamp on the shaft of a string trimmer.

While no one wants our transition to Zoom-based instruction to last forever, I think that our students’ ability to adapt to this mode for engineering project work will serve them well in the future. So many engineering companies locate their design groups over far-flung locations worldwide, requiring collaborative teamwork among employees who never interact in person.  Our unintended foray into online collaborative project work has provided our students with an introduction to the mode of work that will be required of them throughout their careers—even after this virus has been conquered.

Jack Leifer, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Engineering Science at Trinity University.

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