Understand the impacts of an unexpected shift to digital learning

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — The unexpected shift to online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many changes for undergraduate students and their instructors. To understand the magnitude of these impacts and potentially improve digital learning, researchers at the Penn State School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) received $196,136 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

With a particular focus on women and traditionally underrepresented groups, the year-long project will collect data from students enrolled in a first-year design course offered at the College of Engineering.

“When we suddenly changed the fundamental experience of our undergraduates by moving to a digital environment, we were motivated to understand how this change could affect the formation of engineering identities,” said Jessica Menold, assistant professor of technical design and mechanical engineering and principal researcher. of the project. “Previous work suggests that online learning environments foster individualistic learning attitudes and fundamentally change the way peers and instructors interact. This could be problematic, especially for women and underrepresented students in STEM fields, as we know these groups need strong relationships and support networks to not only persevere but thrive in STEM majors. Our goal is to collect evidence that can inform how higher education needs to adapt to retain and support this cohort of students.

To do this, Menold and co-principal investigators Christopher McComb, Assistant Professor of Engineering Design, and Sarah Ritter, Associate Professor of Engineering Design, will examine the experiences of students enrolled in the Spring 2020 sections of the EDSGN 100.

The class, the cornerstone of Penn State’s engineering curriculum, is currently taught to more than 500 students and administered by 12 instructors. Its goal is to impart practical skills with engineering design tools and techniques, such as sketching, 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software, physical modeling, and communication processes.

Menold said, “Due to the nature of the EDSGN 100, we have the unique opportunity to explore a ‘natural experience’. Each instructor’s approach to setting up their virtual classroom will vary, so we can see how these differences affect both student and instructor experiences.

McComb added: “This work will address an immediate need – to understand and repair the disruption to the education of our first year students. However, this work can also fundamentally change the way we deliver these hands-on design courses by helping us better understand how to effectively deliver them virtually. »

Funding was made possible through NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, which supports projects that present urgency in light of unforeseen events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the researchers, first-year courses like EDSGN 100 are particularly important as students form their identity as engineers and gain confidence in their abilities and traditionally underrepresented groups benefit from the relationship building these resident classes provide. often.

“As the core engineering course of the College of Engineering, EDSGN 100 fills a critical need for Penn State engineering students by helping them imagine what a career in engineering looks like through hands-on projects that reflect the industry projects,” Ritter said.

By collecting data from surveys and semi-structured interviews of students and instructors and by working with instructors to quantitatively explore online course platforms via machine learning, the researchers hope that the information they will earn will enhance the learning experiences of engineering students at Penn State and beyond.

“We want higher education to be adaptable and nimble for future crises,” Menold said. “This could point to some strategies or best practices for teaching better in an online environment, especially for hands-on, project-based courses like EDSGN 100.”

The researchers also predict that this experiment could teach instructors unexpected lessons that can improve their interactions with digital and resident students.

“I see so many of my colleagues, at Penn State and other universities, bringing so much empathy to their classrooms,” Menold said. “I know my main priority for students this semester has been to make sure they are safe and healthy. This mindset must not change once we get out of it.

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