MTU Profs Shift Teaching and Labs to Remote Instruction

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campus aerial
The University will be doing remote instruction for the rest of the semester.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then rapidly shifting to remote instruction to slow the spread of COVID-19 is the mother of all classroom flips.

Flipped classrooms, online courses, livestreamed lectures, technology for take-home tests. A week ago, these were innovative ways to push, blend and reframe the blurring boundaries of college classrooms that have moved into digital and real-world spaces. And now they are — almost instantly — the new norm in order to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

Starting immediately after spring break, all instruction at Michigan Technological University went remote, as it did at all 15 public universities in Michigan and hundreds more in the nation. The big question is — how?

Michigan Tech’s faculty and staff are meeting the challenge. A third of Michigan Tech faculty are already certified to teach online and the University has numerous online courses and programs, especially during the summer tracks. Students are well equipped with the tools for online success. Additionally, the William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning provides faculty and staff with resources, support and workshops to make virtual, online and remote instruction go smoothly (pushing the boundaries of online STEM instruction is nothing new to this crew).

But here’s one of the toughest challenges: teaching remote lab sections.

Looking for remote instruction help?

Refer to these tools for online instruction. And, staff in IT and the Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning are ready to assist and support. What creative solutions, simulations, demos and assignments have you come up with? Tell us about them @mturesearch on Twitter so we can help spread the ideas (and not the coronavirus).

No Face-to-face Labs

Alex Sergeyev, professor in the College of Computing and director of the mechatronics program, works on interdisciplinary robotics courses that draw on the strengths of both the College of Engineering and the College of Computing.

 “Of course, nothing can replace the valuable hands-on experience that Michigan Tech faculty provide to our students in the labs. However, with no face-to-face instruction, we need to look for alternative ways to try to replicate the lab experience,” Sergeyev said. “One of the ways to achieve this is to implement the simulation software packages, which are freely available for students to download.”

In collaboration with Scott Kuhl, associate professor of computer science, and with funding from the Department of Labor and National Science Foundation, Sergeyev has worked on several online educational portals for mechatronics that supplement a number of robotics courses on campus and for regional community colleges. His new goal is to expand the list of resources — for everyone: "By building the database of the available resources and sharing it with universities and community colleges nationwide will have a huge impact on addressing the students’ needs, especially in the current situation."

Everyone is adapting with interactive Zoom sessions and breakout rooms, pre-recorded demo labs, simulation software, and remote student presentations. Aneet Narendranath, senior lecturer in mechanical engineering, is spearheading an effort, suggested by academic advisor Ryan Towles, to virtualize the Engineering Learning Center (ELC)  in the Department of Mechanical Engineering - Engineering Mechanics.  This week, the crew will test its virtual tutoring capabilities, via Zoom, through a control group of coaches and MEEM members.  This is to identify steps that a "visiting student" would need to follow and to resolve any bottlenecks to the proposed delivery of ELC tutoring.  

Keith Vertanen, an associate professor of computing science who teaches the College of Computing’s course on programming for the hardware-software interface, said he relied on peer-to-peer tutoring long before campus went remote.

“Often students in the class answer other students' questions on the course forum faster and in more detail than I could ever manage,” said Vertanen. “I'm hopeful that by using Zoom breakout rooms and screen sharing, students will work together to solve small programming challenges. They'll also get to interact with lots of different people since they'll be randomly grouped. This might actually be better than what I can do in a face-to-face large classroom environment.” 

Like Vertanen’s students, Kit Cischke’s electrical and computer engineering classes won’t have access to their normal lab hardware, but there is a silver lining. 

“Somebody wrote a simulator of the hardware we use, which executes inside a web browser,” said Cischke. “I’ve been working with the developer to make sure it’s ready to go. The developer was a little surprised when I contacted him, saying, ‘Very interesting. I certainly did not consider ‘pandemic’ as a use case when I wrote the simulator…’ Nonetheless, it will be as seamless of a transition as I can imagine.” 

New Challenge, New Format

Michigan Tech is known for its dirt-under-fingernails and elbow-grease education with programs like Enterprise where students build nanosatellites and design biomedical equipment for companies, and spaces like the Unit Operations Lab (UO), where chemical engineers learn on industrial-scale equipment.

“It’s already a collaborative effort to teach UO,”  said Jeana Collins, lecturer in chemical engineering, adding that she is part of a five-person team figuring out how to make a very hands-on lab into a virtual classroom. “Running experiments takes time and demos are not equal to that. But the info we often give as organic, spontaneous context during lab instructions can now be turned into new assignments about safety and set-up.”

Tools of the Trade

Here are the technologies MTU faculty are using:

  • Canvas: course organization, assignments, grading, student interaction in Conference mode
  • Panopto and HuskyCast: livestreamed and recorded lectures
  • Zoom: virtual meetings, office hours

Specialized lab software: reach out to the Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning for ideas or send links to Alex Sergeyev to share out with broader listservs

Even Design Expo — the annual showcase of all Enterprise and Senior Design projects held in mid-April — is changing formats. 

“We will plan to hold the event remotely and will be leveraging technology to provide students a virtual showcase,” said Rick Berkey, director of the Enterprise Program working alongside Briana Tucker, the Enterprise Program coordinator. “We are also reviewing the capabilities of the RocketJudge mobile, a judging and voting app to pull in a remote judging community. We are working within several challenges and constraints, but optimistically we hope to engage an even larger virtual audience of the local community, industry and alumni versus the traditional format.”

Accountability in Virtual Classrooms

Invention is born of necessity, but all plans, brilliant ideas and Zoom rooms are simply the starting point. The next couple weeks will really be the test of nimble but brand-new pedagogies that need to last a semester. Success, then, is born of campus culture. And Huskies are as determined, clever and goal-driven as their Iditarod-running namesakes.

“I’ll be relying on the trust of my students,” Cischke said. “People get weirded out about online education and sometimes see it as a place where cheating will just run rampant. I think that if you’ve developed a relationship of trust with your students, then they will be less likely to violate that trust.”

The next few weeks will not be easy. But then no Michigan Tech class ever is. The important part is that we are all in this together (and remotely). As we step bravely into an uncertain future, we still have the power to shape our experience and learn from this adventure. Kindness, patience, honest feedback and a willingness to let perfectionism go will give everyone some much needed breathing room.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.