Plastic barriers between desks, double doors open to ensure proper air flow, students taking labs with masks and face shields on and occupying at 50 percent capacity with their partners over zoom — these are some of the precautions that these mechanical engineering students have had to take in order to attend their in-person labs while socially distancing.
“I feel like a big part of mechanical engineering is building things and seeing things work in the physical world,” mechanical engineering senior Matthew Leung said. “If you can’t work with your hands and see the processes happen like, it’s hard to kind of internalize it.”
According to Leung, since labs are only allowed eight students in the classroom at a time, professors have to split the lab time for students as well. Students are given 45 minutes to perform a lab that they normally would have three hours allotted for.
Leung has been tracking how much time he’s spent outside of class working on his different labs, and found that he spends more than three hours prepping for the lab, with an additional two hours on write-up after the lab.
“Weekends now are not weekends anymore,” Leung said. “It’s just preparing for labs.”
Since Leung now has less time in labs to learn the material, he comes to class more prepared because he is required to do a majority of the lab work beforehand in order to limit the amount of time spent in the classroom.
Despite the obstacles, according to mechanical engineering Professor Charles Birdsong, students are learning the same way that those in the industry are too.
“You’re not a teacher anymore. You’re a producer, producing content. And then you spend all your days on Canvas.” – Charles Birdsong
“I know that students feel bad. They’re worried that they’re missing out on something, but in reality, they’re doing exactly the same thing that everybody else is. And this is a good place to practice that,” Birdsong said.
Birdsong has had to adjust how he teaches virtually since spring quarter, changing the software he uses and pre-recording his lectures. However, it does not compare to being in the classroom.
“You’re not a teacher anymore,” Birdsong said. “You’re a producer, producing content. And then you spend all your days on Canvas.”
Mechanical engineering Professor James LoCascio says that the benefit of these socially distanced labs are the ability to work in smaller groups.
“The value of laboratories is making mistakes, and might sound funny, but you know that’s really the value. You come in and you make a mistake,” LoCasacio said.
LoCascio has been teaching at Cal Poly for 40 years and plans to retire in the spring. Although he himself identifies as immunocompromised, he prefers teaching in-person because he doesn’t believe in virtual learning.
“I usually try not to do things that I don’t believe are effective. Doesn’t matter whether it’s teaching or any part of my life,” LoCascio said.
In a normal situation, LoCascio prefers to teach his classes on multiple blackboards around the room.
“Then I don’t have students ever in the back for the whole hour,” LoCascio said, so the switch to a two-dimensional, online platform proved especially challenging for him.
Despite the labs being in-person, LoCascio as well as Birdsong both said that the lack of personal connection is what they miss during the labs. With less students in the classroom and less time during the labs themselves, there is very little opportunity for social connection to take place while social distancing.
“This is the problem with virtual education, it’s so disengaged,” LoCascio said. “So you know I just don’t see the value myself.”
Leung feels that professors as well as students are learning to balance how much work to assign as well. He felt that last quarter, the abrupt switch to virtual learning caused professors to assign more work as a means of compensating for no in-person classes. Now with more time to adjust their teaching styles, professors have adapted well to online education and will only continue to get better, he said.
“I think the virtual learning process will continue to improve, so I’m looking forward to winter. Hopefully we can get back in person,” Leung said. “I feel like everyone misses just being in person.”