Mixing it up at Engineering School

NYU’s Tandon School is implementing online, blended and in-person classes

31 Jul 2020 | 09:46

Like most colleges around the country, New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering is resuming classes this fall in online, blended (combining online and in-person class components) and in-person capacities. To do so, the school is implementing a variety of both safety-focused and technological changes to accommodate local health directives and different learning modes without disrupting the curriculum too much.

NYU says classroom densities will be reduced to below 50% of normal capacity as students will be spaced at least six feet apart during in-person classes. Tandon’s own guidelines say that classes with more than 40 students will be online, while classes with 15 to 40 students will be blended, and classes with fewer than 15 students will be in-person. According to Tandon Industry Professor Joseph Borowiec, however, there are more factors going into determining which classes can safely run in-person than simply class sizes.

“There are instructors with health conditions ... if there’s a medical reason why they should not come to class, they were given that option,” Borowiec said. “And you still have the reality of which classrooms are available, and how many courses are scheduled for noon, two o’clock and so on.”

Though some classes will be offering in-person sections, every student still has the option to take classes completely remotely. NYU has been busy throughout the summer upgrading its classrooms to try and close the gap between a class’ online and in-person experiences, and offers resources such as the Virtual Computer Lab to access programs that have high system requirements or require expensive software licenses. But the way each class is run is ultimately decided by the instructor, and not every instructor has adapted well to teaching online.

“If you have questions, it’s hard to get them answered via email because if they don’t respond soon, you have less time to complete an assignment,” Tandon sophomore Kavitha Rao said.

But overall, the transition to online learning has gone relatively well. Borowiec said that after considering feedback from students even before the pandemic hit, he went and purchased a writing tablet for his computer.

“One of the major complaints students have is if you have slides and you’re just flipping through them, they can’t follow anymore,” he said. “At least writing on a tablet keeps you at the same pace as if you’re writing on a board.”

Online Labs

Most courses offered by Tandon consist of lectures, labs, and discussion-based sections called recitations. Though all three types of sections have been completely online since mid-March, students and instructors have had very different reactions to each.

“The lecture was fine, my professor would go through the PowerPoint and she could draw, and she was very responsive to everyone in the class,” Tandon junior Chris Fazekas said. “I think there is a lot of value in demonstrating parts of the experiment [online] and visually breaking down what is happening and asking the questions about the process.”

“I’ve had three online labs and only one worked well,” Rao said. “For General Chemistry, the labs were straightforward and simple in-person but online they required hours to complete.”

Despite mixed reactions from students and faculty, however, there has been one aspect of online lectures that has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I do like the flexibility of watching lectures later,” Rao said.

Assessment Methods

Because many students will be attending completely remotely, Tandon will be offering some classes in an asynchronous format, which will allow students located in different time zones to view recorded classes at any time. But it also gives students attending lectures in-person and in real-time online the opportunity to roll back a lesson or redo a problem, which can often help answer students’ questions without the need to contact an instructor for help.

Online learning at Tandon has also had an unexpected effect on some classes’ curriculums. Borowiec said that he had modified a lab course he is teaching to accommodate online instruction. Rather than applying a force to bend a metallic beam for a Statics lab assignment, Borowiec replaced it with an assignment in the computer-aided design software SolidWorks.

But perhaps the biggest changes to classes’ curriculum have been to the assessment methods instructors use. Traditionally, most engineering classes either have group projects or timed exams as their primary assessment methods. But in an online format, those methods are difficult to use, and as Borowiec explained, they may not have been the best ways to assess students’ progress.

“[The pandemic] is making people rethink how they want to assess, like they’re even just doing a take home exam,” Borowiec said. “That was pretty much not something that was considered all that acceptable. But now we’re trying it out. It’s not something that changes overnight, but it’s causing people to rethink in a lot of ways.”

“I do like the flexibility of watching lectures later.” Kavitha Rao, Tandon Schol of Engineering sophomore