Understanding the impacts of unexpected shift to digital learning

Faculty members receive NSF grant to enhance online learning strategies and best practices in engineering, particularly for the support and retainment of underrepresented groups

Newswise — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The unexpected transition to online classes due to the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many changes for undergraduate students and their instructors. To understand the magnitude of these impacts and potentially improve digital learning, researchers in the Penn State School of Engineering Design, Technology, and Professional Programs (SEDTAPP) have received $196,136 from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

With a particular focus on women and traditionally underrepresented groups, the one-year project will gather data from students enrolled in a first-year design course offered in the College of Engineering. 

“When we suddenly changed our undergraduates’ fundamental experience by transitioning to a digital environment, we were motivated to understand how this shift might affect the formation of engineering identities,” said Jessica Menold, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering and the principal investigator of the project. “Prior work suggests that online learning environments promote individualistic learning attitudes and fundamentally change the way peers and instructors interact. This could be problematic, particularly for women and underrepresented students in STEM fields, as we know that these groups need strong relationships and support networks to not only persevere but thrive in STEM majors. Our goal is to gather evidence that can inform how higher education needs to adjust to retain and support this cohort of students.” 

To accomplish this, Menold and co-principal investigators Christopher McComb, assistant professor of engineering design, and Sarah Ritter, associate teaching professor of engineering design, will examine the student experiences of those enrolled in the spring 2020 sections of EDSGN 100. 

The class, a cornerstone of the Penn State engineering curriculum, is currently being taught to more than 500 students and administered by 12 instructors. Its purpose is to impart hands-on skills with engineering design tools and techniques, such as sketching, 3D computer-aided design (CAD) software, physical modeling and communications processes.

Menold said, “Because of the nature of EDSGN 100, we have the unique opportunity to explore a ‘natural experiment.’ Each individual instructor’s approach to setting up their virtual classroom will vary, so we can see how those differences affect both student and instructor experiences.” 

McComb added, “This work will address an immediate need — understanding and repairing the disruption caused to our first-year students’ educations. However, this work may also fundamentally change how we deliver these hands-on design courses by helping us better understand how to effectively deliver them virtually.” 

The funding was possible through the NSF’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) Program, which supports projects that present an urgency in light of unanticipated events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

According to the researchers, first-year courses like EDSGN 100 are particularly important as students are forming their engineering identity and gathering confidence in their abilities and that traditionally underrepresented groups benefit from the relationship-building these resident classes often provide.  

“As the cornerstone engineering course in the College of Engineering, EDSGN 100 serves a critical need for Penn State engineering students by helping them envision what a career in engineering looks like via hands-on projects that mirror projects in industry,” Ritter said.

By collecting data from surveys and semi-structured interviews of students and instructors and working with instructors to quantitatively explore online course platforms via machine learning, the researchers hope the insights they gain will strengthen the learning experiences for Penn State engineering students and beyond. 

“We want higher ed to be adaptable and agile for future crises,” Menold said. “This could point to some strategies or best practices to teach better in an online environment, especially for hands-on project-based courses like EDSGN 100.” 

The researchers also predict this experience may impart some unexpected lessons for instructors that can improve their interactions with both digital and resident students.   

“I’m seeing so many of my colleagues, at Penn State and other universities, bring so much empathy into their classrooms,” Menold said. “I know my main priority for students this semester has been making sure they are safe and healthy. That mindset doesn’t have to change once we come out of this.”




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