Addressing the unexpected: CBE moves swiftly to adjust to COVID-19 pandemic

How to do a study abroad without going abroad: CBE’s Oviedo, Spain summer lab stays home

“Adapt and overcome” is a phrase usually applied to the military. But it played out in the summer of 2020 in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE) with one of the department’s most recognized undergraduate student programs – the Oviedo, Spain Summer Lab Program held in late May and early June each year, in conjunction with the University of Oviedo.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and international travel was restricted, all Iowa State study abroad programs for the summer of 2020 were canceled, including Oviedo. But as with much of ISU’s educational programs, online courses became the norm, including Oviedo. And as with almost everything Iowa State did during this time, a wholesale shift in thinking and functioning had to be employed.

The five-week Oviedo program packs a lot of punch credit-wise, with participating students getting the nod for two chemical engineering lab courses plus elective credit in that short time. This summer’s program was to offer no less. Eleven students who had pre-registered for the course long before “COVID-19” was a part of anyone’s vernacular, would – along with faculty mentor teaching professor Stephanie Loveland – share in an unplanned adventure of navigating the course online here in the U.S., not in the classrooms and laboratories of the University of Oviedo. Whereas the course has always required the students to think on their feet, the disruption of plans this year resulted in significant adaptations on the fly for Loveland as well.

Lab experiments are a major part of the program, and Loveland had to work hard to shift the focus to online presentation. “For some experiments, I went to the lab and video recorded the apparatus and equipment and explained it all to the students, and then recorded myself running the experiments,” Loveland said. “These clips were edited into a single video about 10-15 minutes long for the students to watch and then they were given data to analyze and assigned to write a report. For others, I went into the lab with my teaching assistant, graduate student Nithish Subramanian Kaushik, and we ran a live Zoom session going over the experimental apparatus and theory, did a trial run and sent the students a complete set of data afterward.”

“For a couple of experiments, we used some of the data I had from last time we went to Oviedo and we also ran simulations using programs to model what the process is supposed to do and to compare to the ‘real’ data from the experiment.”

For one experiment, liquid-liquid extraction, more new techniques were successfully employed. Loveland used the help of laboratory supervisor Ryan Arndorfer, who conducted live Zoom sessions from a Sweeney Hall lab for the students, who were divided into groups. Based on data from prior experiments, each group made targeted projections for the rate of flow of a solvent to achieve the desired result. They submitted their information to Arndorfer, who, along with Kaushik, ran the experiments with those numbers and shared the results with each group. One adjustment could be made if the target projection was not met.

A final project mirrored one Loveland said she often assigns in another class, where the students design a new experiment that could be built in the lab and then present a proposal to convince Loveland why it should be added to the course curriculum. “The students did a combination of written reports, memos and recorded oral presentations – which we called ‘autonomous presentations,’ since they are PowerPoint presentations, that the students create,” she said. “They then record a ‘voice over’ narration, kind of like a training webinar.”

These alternative methods of presenting the course work – and the value they brought to the student experience – was not lost on the participants, who acknowledged they still took a plethora of valuable skills out of the planned exercises – even though not in the learning environment of Spain.

“The program became an experiment in itself,” said senior Shelby Baker. “The most beneficial part of this experience was working at such an intensive pace and being forced to be adaptive. Both of these challenges allowed me to learn more about how I function under pressure. I can take what I learned and apply it to situations in life and my future workplace.”

Senior Aurelien Le Denmat was quick to echo the “real world” aspect of the virtual class format and how through its uniqueness, it provided value in jump-starting exposure to what will be encountered in many professional environments: “I think the thing that benefitted me most was learning to work with a team in a virtual environment. I was in a group with two others and doing work was not as easy as meeting at the library for two hours and getting things done. Making sure we had times to meet and having time to get the reports we had due ready in a timely fashion was hard, but it taught me some skills that I think are different than when you are meeting in person.”

The program still ended at the pre-arranged date the in third week of June. There were no planes to catch back to the U.S. or to other European destinations for post-lab travel. But Loveland still arranged some memorable activities for the students, including a socially-distanced gathering with all involved and an online session with Loveland and a couple of students providing live Andalusian (flamenco) dancing to add some authentic Spanish flavor. Loveland also put together “goodie bags” for the departing students with some special items that captured the flavor of Spain.

“I think it was very kind of Dr. Loveland to do all this. The party was a great way to connect with everyone and meet Ryan and Nithish in person, and end the program on a fun note!” said Baker.

And it’s clear the efforts of all to conduct the program in an unprecedented new way will have its legacy. Baker added: “I think the thought process that went into this unique situation will greatly benefit all of us in the future. I know Dr. Loveland would like to take some of the techniques employed to use in other ways. I hope to see it implemented into more typical chemical engineering labs, as I believe it will benefit other students.”

Students, advisors deal with disruption

The sudden move to distance instruction when the COVID-19 pandemic struck and the Iowa State University campus shut down in March 2020 caused a huge disruption to the lives of students, faculty and staff. But, as engineering students are adept at by nature, the ability to analyze and adapt became a top priority for them and those involved with their educational experience. The Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering (CBE) was no different.

Students say they missed physically attending classes, in-person meetings for group assignments and hands-on work in labs. But, there were silver linings in those dark pandemic-induced clouds.

“As disappointing as it was to spend the end of my senior year away from friends and campus, I found that distanced learning took away a lot of stress since I had no scheduled obligations,” said Laura Studanski, a spring 2020 CBE graduate. “I also liked having access to lecture videos for every class that I could re-watch if necessary.”

With that extra electronic flexibility came additional self-discipline. For many students, there was an added challenge of finding the best time management and the motivation to match.

“For me, the biggest challenge was keeping my motivation and accountability up with all of my classes. While I was sure to complete every assignment, without the set class structure I could easily get behind or miss a virtual class lecture,” said Drew Smith, another spring 2020 CBE graduate. “Something that certainly helped was professors setting aside extra time to check in with things,” he said.

For spring 2020 senior graduates, vacating campus also meant no in-person commencement activities. Those moved online as well, with CBE joining a plan that saw all engineering departments creating virtual pre-commencement ceremonies with YouTube Premier videos that were scheduled to air at a pre-arranged time, and continue to be available on demand on YouTube. The university commencement was also held virtually.

“The virtual ceremonies for CBE and the university were both very well-made and sincere. I could tell that everyone involved put in a lot of effort to make us feel supported and recognized, which was very meaningful considering how hectic everyone’s schedules must have been,” said Studanski.

CBE’s advising staff also felt the crunch of the sudden shift to dealing with hundreds of students in an all-electronic scenario.

“Plenty was challenging about this spring, but I’d also say a lot of changes were positive. We upped our focus on proactive advising, reaching out and emailing students prior to dates and deadlines to try and get ahead of the questions and to make sure students understand questions. We did proactive advising before COVID, but now rely on this form of checking in since the only way we have access to students is now through their emails,” said Mackenzie Schwartz, chemical and biological engineering academic advisor.

As the changes started coming, accountability shifted to students. Not only did students have to adapt to new class structures and living arrangements, but also new advising procedures. “We asked a lot from our students to set themselves up for success amidst wide-ranging family and living arrangements,” said academic advisor Matt Brown.

Academic advisor Nicole Prentice said, “I think that the transition to online learning and work due to COVID-19 for me has reiterated the importance of flexibility, adaptability and communication when trying to accomplish a goal.”

Brown echoed those sentiments: “The pandemic of 2020 has taught us to be strong as a unit, to prioritize our time, and to rediscover what makes our work in higher education so rewarding. When we cannot utilize our beautiful campus and be near each other for the safety of all, we appreciate those things even more. The biggest lesson? Cyclone Gratitude,” he remarked.

Meeting a department’s IT challenges requires quick action and decisions

The world revolves around computers. And that became even more apparent – and more urgent – when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person classes for part of the spring semester and all of the summer of 2020 at Iowa State University.

ISU president Wendy Wintersteen correctly said it was like nothing Iowa State had ever experienced before. Almost overnight, IT professionals and faculty members were thrust into a whirlwind of transitioning, trying to figure out how all classes would be taught online and how students were going to experience all lectures, complete all assignments and take all tests remotely. CBE’s systems analyst Colin Richey was part of a team effort that sprang to life with many people across the College of Engineering and across campus.

“The first thing we did was figure out what methods we had available for remote learning, and what were the strengths and weaknesses of each,” said Richey. “Then, we had to figure out how to effectively train faculty and staff to use programs and techniques. We had to set up existing hardware such as laptops and webcams, as well as purchase and distribute equipment to people who didn’t already have it, so they could teach or work with students remotely. Things like helping faculty install software, getting webcams and microphones set up, and getting classes set up in the Canvas teaching program.” Faculty members and student teaching assistants shouldered much of the responsibility in making the transition, and worked hard to find good data sets from previous classes and lab work to aid current students.

Richey said time, or lack of it, was the biggest factor. And while deciding to move to all online learning occurred just prior to spring break, which gave staff an extra week to prepare, “it was definitely a rush to get everyone as comfortable as possible before classes resumed online,” said Richey.

Converting laboratory classes to an online presentation was one of the biggest challenges, and the annual Oviedo, Spain summer lab experience for undergraduate students relies heavily on lab work for students to meet academic requirements.

When all ISU study abroad programs for summer 2020 were canceled the decision was made to have students enrolled in the Oviedo program meet their requirements online. Working with Oviedo program faculty mentor Stephanie Loveland department laboratory supervisors Sarah Beckman and Ryan Arndorfer helped answer the call. Video chat capabilities were set up in a Sweeney Hall lab using a lab web cam and Arndorfer and Loveland, demonstrating lab experiments that were video recorded and made available to students.

“I went to the lab and video recorded using the apparatus and equipment and explained it all, and then recorded myself running the experiments,” said Loveland. “These clips were then edited into a single video about 10-15 minutes long for the students to watch and then they were given data to analyze and write a report.” You can see more about how the Oviedo program adapted in a separate story in this publication.

“Having those video recordings has actually been an asset for future classes,” said Beckman. “I have turned the pre-made video into a pre-lab video that can be used for future classes so they can see the experiments in action and the kinds of questions students ask.”

Other considerations for the fall semester included how to set up and allow usage of computer labs in Sweeney Hall, typically areas where large numbers of students congregate. “Much of our talk turned to whether to open certain spaces, like computer labs, and if we do open them what plans do we have for sanitizing things, or spreading things out so people aren’t sitting so close,” said Richey. “That’s on top of emphasizing and growing our remote classroom options for students and to have access the to software they need. While computer labs were closed for general use in the fall semester of 2020, computing ability was made available to students through remote connection.”

Within a university-wide framework, Richey feels good about what was accomplished under very tight parameters in the spring of 2020: “Ultimately, from the feedback I’ve gotten, I think we were very successful in getting things moved to all-online learning.”