COVID-19 disrupted every part of society, but the ECE department met these changes head on, embracing the advantages of remote research and instruction while tackling the challenges.

Classes, including labs, moved online. Researchers learned to work with limited physical support. And vital resources like the ECE clean room found ways to schedule creatively to manage distancing requirements.

“I’m impressed with how well every member of ECE, from students to faculty and staff, handled the challenges of the past two years,” says Department Head Luke Lester. “Everyone switched to new ways of working, and figured out how to make it work—like the problem solvers they are.”

ECE professor Scott Bailey agrees that the department worked together well to meet the changing demands of the pandemic. “Leadership on all levels—starting with our department head down—really stepped up to make sure everything ran smoothly. The department staff was also crucial. I’m proud of how well and quickly our department pivoted to meet the needs of the pandemic.”

Experiential learning—virtually

Although students and professors faced usual difficulties of online classes—connectivity, engagement, and isolation, some professors found silver linings.

“I kept the chat window open at all times so that I could see student comments and questions in real-time,” writes Arthur Ball, ECE collegiate assistant professor. “It turns out that a lot of students who would have been reluctant to speak up in class were perfectly willing to type up a comment in the chat window. The amount of interaction turned out to be more than in in-person instruction!”

Ball also notes that he could demo real-world equipment and circuits much more easily through a camera—equipment he would not have been able to carry to class.

Two students stand in from of a presentation screen.
Researchers had to get creative with lab resources and staffing to maintain safety and distancing requirements during the pandemic.

Labs from anywhere

How do you give students a full laboratory experience when they can’t use on-campus lab equipment? You send them their own.

ECE students have purchased basic test equipment (including a USB combination oscilloscope, function generator, and network analyzer; a multimeter, and a breadboard) and parts kits for years. This equipment is used throughout the curriculum, and also gives students an opportunity to easily explore and create their own projects. The lab instructors transitioned their courses to use this equipment, and shipped parts kits nationally and internationally to give students what they needed.

Students performed the labs remotely, and received help during synchronous online classes and office hours, as well as through the Piazza question-and-answer app. Not only did this give students a similar experience to what they would have had in non-pandemic conditions, the experience was better in some respects, notes William Baumann, associate professor and Director of Instructional Labs. As students seeking help took pictures and shared their screens over Zoom, “the student was involved in every measurement of the debugging process.”