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Keeping the core of courses alive during online learning

A natural question to ask is, What’s changed in Olin’s teaching practices as a result of the COVID-19 crisis? For Olin Assistant Professor of Measurement Science, Alessandra Ferzoco, the more interesting question is what will be the same. 

“What will be the same are the expectations we have for students for intellectual ownership of what they do,” she says. “The opportunities for creativity and self-direction within an experience will be the same. Students will still have an advisor who is there not to command them, but to coach them. The logistical details around how we do this may be different, but we haven’t changed anything about the spirit and core of the courses.” 

Professor Alessandra Ferzoco speaks to students in a classroom

Alessandra Ferzoco speaks with students in a classroom in 2018.

Ferzoco has arrived at this understanding after spending much of the summer planning for the Fall’s likely blend of on-campus and remote learning. When Olin’s campus shut down right after Spring break, she’d been teaching a Thermodynamics class. Moving the class online happened so fast that there wasn’t time to be reflective. “I had lots of content—homework and exams that take a long time to develop—that needed to be reinvented on a fast time scale,” she says. “We were all just in Go mode.”

She quickly restructured established class projects in a way that students could do them at home. The students had been working in teams building Stirling engines. The team-based aspect wouldn’t work remotely, and the students couldn’t access the same hardware at home. But they could take a conceptual piece of the engine project they’d been thinking about and make it individual. “We emphasized simplicity and clarity for the same line of inquiry they were following and de-emphasized the specific hardware,” says Ferzoco.

The goal became how clearly and simply could students could articulate their line of thinking. Using rudimentary materials inspired good-natured competitiveness. It became a badge of honor among classmates, who built experiments out of all sorts of available materials. Some projects were elaborate. A student studied the enthalpy of vaporization during the maple syrup sugaring process by learning to tap trees to harvest sap, making an evaporator from junk yard parts and rigging up an automated measurement. On the simpler side, a student measured how the material properties of salt water changed with salinity. 

Sam Eppinger '21

Sam Eppinger '21 with an evaporator made from parts, converts sap to maple syrup

This Fall, Ferzoco will advise the Senior Capstone Program in Engineering (SCOPE) projects that have been designed and adapted to be compatible with remote learning. SCOPE projects are traditionally team-based. “We are thinking about how to maintain a sense of community,” she says. “In collaboration with students, we will find ways to spend time together by asking each other, What feels like a mechanism to help form community, and not have you just sit in front of computers?”

Going forward, Ferzoco plans to keep elements from last semester’s experience. Students loved having online video lectures available to watch and re-watch at their own pace. She’ll also aim to engender a similar lively spirit. For example, during the final exam period, the class reviewed each other’s projects online—with a playlist. You can see a snippet from this session, set to “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper.

Read the latest updates, messages, and FAQs about Olin’s planned Fall 2020 return to campus.