The SourceCivil Engineering MagazineIntroductory engineering course offers comprehensive foundation
Higher Learning

Introductory engineering course offers comprehensive foundation

By Margaret M. Mitchell

For many students, the path to earning a civil engineering degree begins at a four-year college or university. However, some choose the less traditional route, opting instead to start their journey at a community college. Northern Essex Community College, with campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence, Massachusetts, is one of many two-year schools in the United States that provides high-quality, affordable education in a variety of subjects and specialties. For those who have an exploratory interest in civil engineering, NECC offers EST 104 Engineering Essentials and Design, a course that introduces prospective engineers to structural analysis and design, coding, and circuits. 

There are no prerequisites other than a semester of algebra and trigonometry, and that is purposeful, explains associate professor Doug Leaffer, MSCE, EIT, P.G., M.ASCE, who teaches the class. “It’s more of an introductory course for students coming into community college who want to explore engineering as a possible major and a possible career but who often have had no prior exposure to engineering.”

Before the pandemic, the class was predominantly in-class lectures and labs. When the pandemic hit in the spring, all classes were moved to an online-only format. For the fall, however, the class has a hybrid format: weekly in-person labs coupled with online learning, using a variety of low-cost or free software and simulation software tools. 

The transition from in-person to online-only to a hybrid format has been a learning experience not only for the students but for the instructors as well. One of the reasons the transition this fall has been more sustainable, seamless, and professional is due to iTeach, a six-week, online, comp­etency-based teacher-training module that was developed by NECC’s Center for Instructional Technology. 

“We advanced through this training module when we mastered a skill,” Leaffer explains. Skills included preparing a digital syllabus with embedded links and alt text for images and creating short videos with slides and drawings, explaining to students how to interpret them. The content the instructors created as they learned each skill went on to form the shell of their respective courses. By the end of the six weeks, instructors had finalized their content and uploaded it to the school’s Blackboard site in time for the start of the fall semester. In addition, they were matched with an iTeach “buddy” — someone who had already successfully demonstrated online teaching skills and who could provide help if needed.

In addition to iTeach, the simulation software — Tinkercad, Bridge Designer, and MATLAB Grader — has been invaluable to teaching the basic principles of engineering such as circuit design, structural analysis and design, and coding, respectively. What makes these tools so worthwhile is that they are free, come with tutorials on how to use the software, and provide immediate feedback if the coding, design, or circuitry has been properly executed. Students must purchase low-cost microprocessor controller unit kits that have sensor and digital analog components that “interface” with the licensed MATLAB software. 

Although the majority of the class is online, students must come in once a week to the lab to collect data, using equipment that is not cost-effective for them to purchase — such as spectrometers. And collecting data is all they do while they are in the lab. Before the pan­demic, Leaffer had 18 to 20 students in the class and more than three hours with them each week in the lab. Because of class-size restrictions and social distancing rules, those three hours have been cut into three 75-minute sessions with six or so students in each session, with a cleaning between each one. It is not an ideal scenario for learning, but he is grateful that the students have some time in the lab.

Keeping students engaged in the material has been a challenge but one he has been able to combat in a variety of ways. Besides their hands-on time in the lab, students are offered extra credit and bonus points. Instructional videos and free online training courses are also available to augment their studies. What has worked particularly well at keeping them invested are the Zoom breakout rooms he has set up, which give them opportunities to interact with the teaching assistant as well as one another. During the lecture, Leaffer will walk students through a coding problem in the main chat room. They then leave the main chat to enter their breakout sessions, returning 10 to 15 minutes later when they discuss “the solutions, results, and challenges,” Leaffer states.

For the most part, though, the work is solitary. “The hallmarks of the course were team- and project-based learning. We still do PBL (in the breakout sessions), but we can’t do TBL this year,” he says. “So for PBL, we explain to students how to build their sensor kits or how to build their project, and they can do most of the design and building at home.”

One thing that has not been sacrificed is the final design project, and students are allowed to pick the topic. “Because this is an exploratory and foundational course, we hope that they will be more excited and stimulated about one particular topic, whether it’s structural, electrical, or optical, or some other property of engineering that they studied in the class,” says Leaffer. 

And something that might have been easier to do in normal circumstances now requires more ingenuity because much of it has to be done using simulation software. “Students will have to build the design/engineering project using circuits, code, materials, or some optical components, and they won’t have the hardware to do much of the investigation and testing. They’ll need to come up with a way to simulate that. It is a challenging opportunity, but I think it will get students to think” of creative ways to do their projects, he says.

Having the freedom to work at their own pace, the asynchronous content delivery, and his virtual office hours on Zoom are positives of this hybrid format. “Particularly with community college students, many of them are working or are caring for younger siblings during
COVID. So, they need flexibility.” 

He cites the added costs for the software license and kits, internet accessibility issues, and no or subpar laptops as some of the downsides to the online component of class. However, to counteract the latter two, NECC implemented two initiatives. The first was establishing a $200,000 fund so that students who did not own suitable computers could purchase them. The second was free Wi-Fi access in the school’s parking lot, which was especially handy in the warmer months when they could study in their cars or the other outdoor areas. 

Overall, though, Leaffer is pleased with the class and how he has been able to continue to give his students a comprehensive introduction to engineering. “Community colleges offer a very solid foundation in engineering courses, and NECC is no exception,” he says.

Do you have an innovative program for reaching and teaching today’s technology-savvy civil engineering students? If so, email [email protected] using the subject line “Higher Learning.”      

This article first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.

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