‘How Do You Do the Lab Classes?’: Harvard’s Engineering School Adapts to the Virtual World

Engineering courses are among those that face the greatest logistical hurdles in adapting to a virtual setting – equipment can often be expensive and immobile, while labs and group projects present a need for collaboration.
By Natalie L. Kahn and Simon J. Levien

Many courses at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have turned to labs conducted at home, using kits mailed to students.
Many courses at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have turned to labs conducted at home, using kits mailed to students. By Yuen Ting Chow

When Abigail S. Huebner ’23 was deciding which concentration to declare in fall 2020, she was hesitant about declaring engineering without having ever taken an engineering course in person.

“I was confused about how I was going to sort of learn what engineering was and get a feel for engineering without having any in-person component, and without having the labs and hands-on experience that I know is usually so crucial to understanding engineering,” she said.

But since deciding to declare engineering as her concentration, Huebner said she has been “pleasantly surprised” by her experience in online engineering courses, though she acknowledged “there’s still something missing.”

As the University nears the first anniversary of its transition to online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, faculty and students at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences have had to work hard to adjust their course plans for engineering students like Huebner.

Engineering courses are among those that face the greatest logistical hurdles in adapting to a virtual setting – equipment can often be expensive and immobile, while labs and group projects present a need for collaboration.

The plan outlined by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences for the 2020-21 academic year requires all undergraduates to complete the entirety of their coursework remotely without access to labs, while graduate students currently have limited lab access to minimize in-person interaction.

Administrators and instructors have come up with a number of ways to attempt to compensate for the difficulties, including labs conducted at home using equipment mailed to students and remote-controlled technology, to mimic the in-person experience as best as possible.

Professor David C. Bell, who teaches Applied Physics 295: “Electron Microscopy Laboratory,” said labs have posed the greatest challenge during the last year of remote instruction.

“You can do the lectures remotely, because that’s just doing a lecture. That’s not really a problem,” Bell said. “But how do you do the lab classes?”

Undergrads and Home Labs

Despite the difficulty of replicating the lab component of engineering courses in a virtual setting, more than a dozen engineering students, faculty, and staff told The Crimson they feel the modified labs have been largely successful.

In many engineering courses, undergraduate students — whose lab coursework is completely remote per FAS guidelines — received kits to conduct labs at home.

Christopher J. Lombardo, associate director of undergraduate studies in Electrical Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, said the at-home labs for undergraduate students have been effective.

“The components we provided, I would say, give them the ability to do 90 or 90-plus percent of what they were able to do on campus, but from home,” Lombardo said.

Elaine H. Kristant, director for mechanical engineering at SEAS Active Learning Labs — a program that worked to improve the hands-on experience of SEAS courses even before the pandemic — and Active Learning Labs Mechanical Engineer Tony Turner said they have spent the past year designing and distributing lab kits for several engineering courses.

Kristant said she had to design labs enabling students to build structures at home without access to laboratory-grade machine tools.

Turner added that their primary consideration in kit design was student safety. Instead of an in-person walk-around and tool demonstration at the machine shop, Kristant made an “unboxing video” serving as a virtual training for the mailable kits sent to students scattered around the globe.

The ALL team had to navigate customs and international shipping regulations, which sometimes prevented students from receiving certain parts. Turner said he pushed for labs to be “team-based and very collaborative” to compensate for those unable to receive the right parts on their own.

One limitation of kit-based learning is that there is less room for students to learn from errors, Turner said; to combat this, kit design efforts have focused on “adaptability.”

“Engineering students learn a lot by making mistakes, by making things that do not work,” he said. “Typically in the lab if you mess up a part, we have more stock you can go cut more and try again. Within a kit, we cannot send 10 extras of every single item.”

The lab kit sent to students in General Education 1080: How Music Works: Engineering the Acoustical World to allow them to complete projects at home during the remote semester.
The lab kit sent to students in General Education 1080: How Music Works: Engineering the Acoustical World to allow them to complete projects at home during the remote semester. By Courtesy of Elaine H. Kristant

Engineering concentrator Joshua A. Ng ’23 said he has been able to successfully learn from the at-home labs.

“Professors and teaching fellows have been able to reinvent the lab in-person hands-on experience, which I have definitely enjoyed, instead of just using my computer and just learning the theory, which is kind of boring stuff,” Ng said.

Jaxson T. Hill ’23, an engineering student, said since students complete kit labs asynchronously, he gets to experiment more on his own time, rather than rushing to finish a lab in a two-hour, in-person section.

But Engineering concentrator Amy L. Nichols ’23 noted that, as a sophomore, her limited experience with in-person lab classes before the pandemic makes the comparison harder.

“It’s kind of one of those things where I don’t really know what I’m missing until when I hopefully go back on campus soon,” she said. “Some people might know how to use a machine, and I just will have no idea.”

Still, some faculty decided to transition labs to a fully virtual format. SEAS professor Petros Koumoutsakos said he transitioned what would have been a hands-on fluid mechanics lab into a computerized simulation activity for students.

While the online simulation is the best virtual alternative, he said, it cannot “replace” an in-person lab.

Mohammad Souri, a SEAS simulation engineer who designed Koumoutsakos’s computerized lab, said developing digital labs for SEAS courses has “become really important” as a result of the pandemic forcing students from campus. Souri said his team developed an online learning environment to host lab simulations students can view from their computers.

Some courses which never had computerized labs requested that he and his team develop them in the absence of in-person experimentation, he added.

Normally, computer-based experiments would be done in SEAS in-house computer labs with specialized software. With students learning remotely, Souri said he simplified the software so it did not require training.

“I came up with an idea to make the app from that software so students don't need to know what's going on in the background, but they still can see the simulation in the app,” he said, referencing a thermodynamics lab he designed.

‘Upside-Down’ Graduate Labs

As Bell’s Applied Physics 295 is a graduate course, his students do have access to labs, but only one person can be in the lab at a time.

Bell’s solution has been an “upside-down” lab, where the instructor is remote while the student is in the lab.

“We thought, ‘Well, what we could do is we could actually let the students into the rooms by themselves and we would instruct them how to use the microscope, by Zoom call,’” he said.

Jules A. Gardener, a SEAS Imaging Engineer who assists Bell and his students with their labs, described a “three-pronged attack” in guiding students remotely through the labs: Zoom for direct communication, the software TeamViewer to remotely control equipment, and video demonstrations.

“Because these are very large, complicated pieces of equipment, we can actually log in with TeamViewer,” Bell said. “And if needed, we can actually run most of the operation of the microscope remotely.”

Another engineer who partners with Gardener, Adam C. Graham, said he views the effort as a success.

“It's definitely been working,” he said. “Every lab class that I’ve done, they’ve walked out being able to complete the objective and feel pretty good about it.”

Graham added that one positive is that students receive more one-on-one attention since every lab is completed solo, but, as a result, the total time he and Gardener spend in the lab has increased.

“We used to do a lab session with three to four people in each lab session, and that session would last about three hours,” he said. “Now, we’re spending three hours with each student.”

Bell, Gardener, and Graham also did acknowledge virtual instruction in the lab has slowed down the pace of learning.

“It’s taking us roughly twice as long to cover material in a remote fashion,” Bell said.

“We’ve kind of boiled it down to really the key concepts, and make sure that everyone gets to cover those because we’re having to go a little bit more slowly,” Gardener added.

Rethinking Engineering Education

Thinking in the long-term, the pandemic has forced professors to reconsider the way their engineering courses will be structured in a post-pandemic time.

The challenge of virtually directed labs for graduate students has reinforced the importance of face-to-face lab instruction, according to Bell.

“The biggest challenge is really the fact that you can’t be there to reach out over the shoulder of a student and press a button,” he said.

But others said they wonder if certain aspects of virtual engineering classes could be preserved even when learning resumes in person, based on noted successes.

“Maybe it’s a future hybrid situation with hugely declined lab time, but you know if you don’t finish things, just pick up your kit, take it back to your house, and complete it,” Lombardo said.

“That’s something we’re experimenting with,” he added. ‘I'm not sure we know the right answer, but this can help us start to try to answer those questions.”

Gardener added that the demonstration videos she and Graham have compiled could be helpful to students, who can rewatch them if they miss something, even when SEAS is fully operational.

“Everyone learns in different ways,” she said. “If there’s someone who wants to watch something multiple times, then they can do that.”

Lombardo added that certain long-run changes will inevitably take place – though Harvard has not unveiled its plan for fall 2021, it seems unlikely that engineering classes next fall will completely return to their pre-pandemic state.

“If we’re not 100 percent on campus in the fall or if we’re 100 percent on campus, does that mean we’re back to the way things were pre-Covid? Probably not,” he said.

—Staff writer Natalie L. Kahn can be reached at natalie.kahn@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @natalielkahn.

—Staff writer Simon J. Levien can be reached at simon.levien@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @simonjlevien.

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