Evolving the curriculum to support remote work

August 24, 2020

When the pandemic forced Olin’s campus to abruptly close, the Quantitative Engineering Analysis (QEA) course was one of many that transformed into a virtual class halfway through the semester.

QEA is a pivotal course for dozens of first-year students that requires solving a series of robotics challenges while learning linear algebra, optimization, physics, multivariable calculus, and vector calculus. It’s centered around completing three projects, including building a boat, learning facial recognition software, and programming a mobile robot to accomplish a task.

How the class could continue this remotely was a challenge that a team of Olin instructors–Paul RuvoloMark SomervilleJohn GeddesLinda Vanasupa, and Jeff Dusek—had the chance to address with many of the students before they left. “They came up with a big list of suggestions, like how to work in groups, which was a big component of what we’d been doing,” says Ruvolo. This played out well in virtual class sessions as class resumed online. Five instructors were assigned to breakout rooms with small groups of students. A main virtual classroom became a place for students who were behind to get focused attention. Students worked on Zoom whiteboards so faculty could see when someone could use help.

High-level group discussion among Olin professors has addressed topics such as ways to use online learning platforms, but the details of how to best engage students are entrusted to professors, depending on the pedagogy of the specific course. “We have faculty who really care about teaching at Olin, and we have confidence that everyone will rise to the occasion and do something that works for the students,” he says. 

Ruvolo hasn’t found it overly difficult to adhere to Olin’s emphasis on project-based learning. “We’re seeing that there are a lot of ways to make the positive aspects of project-based learning work like it would on campus, and students are still doing open-ended projects,” he says. “It’s about finding creative ways to maintain the benefits of project-based learning. We’re not just doing lectures and problem sets online. Not at all. We’re asking, What are opportunities to put the unique things that we do in this online setting and what’s available to us?”

For example, QEA’s robot module was redesigned to be done through simulation. “We learned that we could really minimize the use of physical things,” he says. In working with students on the simulated robots, Ruvolo got excited about creating a similar situation with the boat project. Typically, students design a boat using a laser cutter and other materials, and now they’ll use 3-D printers. “I’d already been exploring using 3-D printed boats as a way to do this module, and these materials can be ordered online and delivered to students’ homes.”

“I’d already been exploring using 3-D printed boats as a way to do this module, and these materials can be ordered online and delivered to students’ homes.”

- Paul Ruvolvo on the 3D Printed boats (pictured on right) being made by the QEA class in the Fall 2020 semester.

See More: Human-Centered Engineering with Paul Ruvolo
A green, oval-shaped, 3D printed boat with the words "Cape_Olive" printed underneath it.

Ruvolo sees that evolving the curriculum will continue to be half of the adjustment. The other half will be finding ways to address equity issues that could manifest in the online learning environment. Students may not have home environments that are conducive to focusing on work, and students live in different time zones, many in Asia. “An essential challenge is keeping track of everyone, and spending time reaching out to individuals and making sure everyone has support—and feels motivated,” he says. “We know that this course thrives on a positive learning environment, and we’ll be guarding this as closely as possible.”