Engineering Solutions Implemented to Keep Labs, Learning Going During Pandemic
Monitoring numerous labs with scaled-back users in response to the COVID-19 pandemic brought some unexpected exercise for materials science and engineering teaching laboratory specialist Ryan Braga.
The pandemic forced many researchers and the faculty who teach in the labs to abruptly pack up and leave campus last March. But labs couldn’t be completely ignored, and that is when Braga began pounding the pavement.
“I went around checking each lab every day,” Braga said. “I had to make sure every lab was OK, there were no water leaks, doors were locked and address any other issues.”
His daily walk through Hoover and Gilman halls to check 29 labs covered more than a mile.
Pivoting on the Fly
When the university moved to virtual instruction in the spring, numerous decisions had to be made about labs.
“We have a lot of people who have independent access to our labs — students, grad students and faculty,” lab supervisor Michelle Grawe said. “We had to decide who would keep access, and our research faculty had to decide if they would keep their research going. We also support those labs.”
Those who continued to conduct research followed strict safety protocol with face coverings, physical distancing and restrictions on the number of people in the lab.
“For a while, we were having people cycle through the lab by themselves so there would only be one person working at a time because we just weren’t sure,” Grawe said.
Braga and Grawe also became even more hands-on over the short term to help undergraduates and their instructors successfully complete the semester or, in some cases, shut down projects.
“When they couldn’t be in the room to run the experiments, we cranked out some numbers for them so they would have that to work with,” Braga said.
As faculty, staff and students left campus, a new reality took hold.
“I think for much of the world everything ramped down, and for us, everything just ramped up,” Grawe said.
Planning for Fall
Determining how to bring students back into the lab safely for fall semester began during the summer with a committee led by materials science and engineering professor Alex King.
“It was basically just a conversation about how we were going to help the students, and the different things we could do and innovate,” Grawe said. “It was all so we could have as much in-person learning as possible, as safely as possible.”
Grawe began by enhancing safety protocols already in place in labs where daily risks were present long before the pandemic added another difficult layer. The medical community informed much of that: wearing personal protective equipment, limiting the number of people in labs and keeping them properly spaced, working with the same people and accommodating those with health needs.
Grawe also mapped each lab and designated stations where a limited number of people could work. She also organized lab safety gear.
“In our teaching labs we used to just share lab coats and safety glasses,” Grawe said. “So we now have a system with numbered lab coats for each student and their own safety glasses. Each lab coat was sprayed down daily with a hospital-grade cleaner.”
To aid contact tracing, teaching assistants recorded student movement by taking photographs after anyone moved to a different area. Those pictures were uploaded to a file and could be referenced if someone became ill to determine who their close contacts were.
Grawe and Braga also are responsible for training others on and servicing the equipment in the labs. They had to work out their own best practices to do those tasks as safely as possible.
It no longer was possible to have 10 to 15 students crowding around a single piece of equipment, so the department went to work designing a solution. The result was three technology carts that could respond to the impact of the pandemic. Braga collected cameras, computers, software and other easily accessible technology to build a mobile learning center. Each cart enabled images of an instrument as well as the individual using it to be projected on a screen in that room, a room down the hall or to a student’s computer logging in online.
“It was determining how we would respond to different levels of lockdown,” Braga said. “It was from ‘everything is working great’ to ‘what if everyone had to leave the lab again?’ How do we make it valuable for the students?”
The carts continue to be used, and instructors are able to go from room to room and remain connected with students through web cameras and speakers. It’s beneficial when a lab section might have 18 students, but only eight to 10 are allowed in a room because of physical distancing.
To better serve graduate students, Grawe and Braga transformed a small conference room into a studio where they could record or livestream with greater quality. Green screen and picture-in-picture were two options used during fall semester that improve lectures for both instructors and students.
“With students watching remotely, this provides a better quality experience that will continue to be important going forward,” Braga said.
Graduate students working as teaching assistants helped extend lab hours so students could complete projects and provided a needed assist to the lab staff.
Beyond the Pandemic
Some of the technology that was vital this fall likely will become permanent fixtures in labs. The ability to save recorded lectures and experiments also will enhance future teaching within the department, Grawe said.
The pandemic made the department rethink some procedures that now have become staples.
“There are a lot of times in history where things have gone sideways, and that has been a time of innovation and moving forward in the long run,” she said.