TRANSITIONING ENGINEERING COMPUTER LABS TO VIRTUAL CLASSROOMS: CHALLENGES AND IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGIES

M. Ben Ghalia

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UNITED STATES)
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced universities around the world to transition their face-to-face classrooms to online learning. Engineering labs present unique challenges for instructors due to the hands-on learning requirements and student interactions. Moreover, transitioning engineering labs to online format during the middle of the semester does not allow for adequate time to plan the necessary changes in the course delivery and assessments. In the case of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, we transitioned to full-time online learning after the week of Spring break in the month of March 2020. The break was extended by one week to allow instructors time to plan the transition. The online learning mode has been extended through Summer 2021.

This paper presents the transition plan adopted for an engineering programming course that has a lecture component and a computer lab component. The course introduces engineering students to programming using the software MATLAB, including topics on numerical methods. Both the lecture and the computer lab were transitioned to synchronous learning through Zoom. It was helpful that the lecture and lab materials for the course are already posted on Blackboard, the course management system adopted by the University. Also, submission of lab assignments have always been done electronically through Blackboard.

Hence, the planning for the transition had to consider these additional issues:
• Course topics and policies: which ones need to be modified?
• Lecture and lab delivery: do all students have access to the internet, computers, the MATLAB software, and webcams?
• Assessments: what would be the new format for the assessments?
• Classroom participation: Would it be possible to retain student participation – an important engaging factor used in the face-to-face format?
• Instructor Office Hours: How to transition to virtual office hours?

This paper presents the challenges faced when transitioning the engineering course to online format and the strategies that were developed to ensure a smooth transition. The same course was offered fully online again every semester till Summer 2021. The paper discusses the lessons learned from the Spring experience that led to further improvement of the course online delivery and its impact on students.