For students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Engineering, the Capstone Senior Design course is a rite of passage. The two-semester course requires students to work in teams, calling on all of their classroom knowledge to design a viable product and build a working prototype.

But what happens when an unprecedented disruption puts an end to in-person collaboration weeks before the projects are completed?

senior design archived2This archive photo shows a typical senior design project, with students working in teams to design and build a device for a client. In 2020, teams were halfway through their second semester of work when COVID-19 made many course goals impossible.That was the challenge facing seniors in Spring 2020. Due the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak, the university transitioned to online classes after spring break. Senior design teams were unable to meet in person and building a working prototype became all but impossible.

“Transitioning to online learning with little time to prepare was a challenge for everyone, but for senior design, it was especially disruptive,” said Alan Eberhardt, Ph.D., director of the Capstone Senior Design Course in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. “Building, testing, and validating the functionality of students’ design projects, all of which involves hands-on teamwork, is usually 30 percent of the final grade. So, we had to completely re-think how we could fairly evaluate the students’ work.”

The result was that Eberhardt and Dale Feldman, Ph.D., who serves as a co-instructor, revised their grading rubric by removing the 30 percent prototype component and distributing those points among several other requirements, such as a final report containing an extensive Risk/Benefit analysis and a scientific poster.

“One of the strengths of this course is that students are building working prototypes for clients to address real-world challenges,” Eberhardt said. “So that became one of the challenges. How do we address an impossible situation without letting students off the hook?”

In the end, Eberhardt said, some projects were better suited for these alternate circumstances than others. For example, one team had planned to create an “empathy app.” The final prototype was a web-based application designed to help people comprehend the challenges of living with hearing impairment.

RS21833 PaigeSeverino scr 1Paige Severino was part of a team that seemed well-suited for remote collaboration. Click here to read more about her team's experience dealing with the challenges of 2020.“Designing a web-based application is not what most people think of as a typical biomedical engineering senior design project,” said team member Paige Severino. “Our team spent a lot of time learning about back-end development and taking programming courses through Youtube, but it paid off in the end. The non-traditional project where you don’t have a shiny, physical prototype actually turned out to be one that was well-suited for remote collaboration.”

Despite those advantages, the team still experienced some roadblocks when it came to delivering a final product. “We weren’t immune to the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Severino said. “The transition to online learning, the anxiety of the situation, and the disappointment in not being able to complete senior year in the traditional way resulted in some distraction.”

Unlike some other teams, Severino says her team was able to complete a prototype, but the verification and validation testing the team had planned was not completed.

One of the objectives in every project is to learn to work within realistic design constraints, including budget, materials, time constraints, etc.” said Eberhardt, “So in that sense, it was interesting to see how teams attempted to adapt to the challenge. But that’s not to say this was a net positive. This semester was a challenge for everyone, and I’m proud of how this senior class responded. I hope it was a valuable experience.”

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When officials at the UAB School of Engineering launched a new Peer Tutoring Lab in late 2019, they had no idea how critical such services would soon become.

The service was established prior to the spring 2020 semester as an in-person tutoring facility in the Education-Engineering Complex. Funded by a grant from Alabama Power, the lab employed several highly qualified students to tutor their classmates in a variety of engineering-related subjects with the goal of increasing retention of freshman and sophomore students.

When the university abruptly switched to remote learning mid-semester because of the COVID 19 pandemic, professors and students alike had to adjust to the changed format.

Luckily lab director Gregory Myers says that his team of engineering tutors proved surprisingly adept at remote instruction. “I would say that in some ways, it has been an improvement over the face-to-face tutoring we were doing in the spring,” he explained. “Our number of tutoring sessions went up, and our tutors not only fulfilled their tutoring obligations, they excelled.”

Having proved its worth during that time of transition, the tutoring lab became a mainstay for undergraduates during the fall semester, and it is considered a key piece of the dean’s retention strategy. “Engineering is about solving problems, and talking through problems and solutions with your peers, an instructor, or a tutor is an essential part of the learning process,” said engineering Dean Jeff Holmes, M.D., Ph.D., who arrived at UAB on July 1. “I’ve seen firsthand how one-on-one tutoring helps our students, and it is a great example of how industry partners like Alabama Power are helping us ensure that all our students have the support they need to succeed, particularly during COVID when studying with classmates can be more difficult.”

Highly Qualified Tutors

The dean’s confidence in the tutoring lab is more than just lip-service, and much more than just a statement of ideals. Shortly after he arrived at UAB, Holmes asked Dr. Myers if he could volunteer as a tutor alongside the students; his shift is on Monday afternoons.

Freshman engineering student Lauryn Johnson uses the Engineering Peer Tutoring Lab and other academic support services across campus. When her first test came back with a failing grade, she says she knew she needed to seek out help.

“I dropped in on a Monday, and Dr. Holmes helped me understand some of the concepts I was struggling with,” said Johnson. “I met with him a couple of times after that, and on my next test, I got a 98. So, I was able to improve my grade significantly, but I had no idea he was the dean until my advisor told me.”

Although every tutoring session doesn’t mean a private session with an M.D./Ph.D., Myers says he is proud of the work the student tutors do to help their classmates. “We certainly try to identify highly capable students to work as tutors, but it might not always be the top students who make the best tutors,” Myers said. “Just as important to me is that the tutor be able to empathize and be patient with the person seeking help. In some situations, the tutors may still be figuring things out themselves, but if that tutor is passionate about the subject matter and is willing to give something back, that’s an ideal situation. And we still have faculty and TAs who can support them when they need it.”

That helpful spirit—and the impact it is having on her academic performance—is what Johnson says keeps her coming back. “I have worked with a variety of tutors, and I’ve never had anyone who got impatient or acted like I should already know something,” she said. “There have been times when I had more than one tutor online trying to help me work through a problem.”

And even though hybrid learning has been effective in many respects, she says the tutoring services at UAB are a key piece to help her bridge the gap created by Zoom lectures. “I think it’s more important than ever to have services like this because of the environment we’re in,” she said. “It’s really hard to not be able to relate to a professor face-to-face in class, to not be able to ask questions in a natural way. If I wasn’t able to drop in to the engineering tutoring lab, I don’t know where I would be right now.”

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