Engineering Students Face Myriad of Challenges in COVID–19 World

Student Perspective

April 17, 2020

Transition to online learning. Employment or co-op issues. Loss of Housing. Financial implications. Post-grad plans canceled. Emotional impact of isolation from friends and family.  Not to mention the rigorous academics of a Speed School curriculum.

All these challenges and more have been what Speed School students have had to navigate since the COVID-19 pandemic has caused massive disruption in their lives, along with the rest of the world. We talked with some students about those challenges and how they’ve managed them.

Online learning challenges

Brandon Burke, a senior Industrial Engineering major, said it’s been a challenge switching gears to online, especially in some of his high level senior classes.  “Losing that face to face lecture time with professors that normally you have, and the open forum to ask questions is hard.  Our study groups got obliterated but we’ve adapted with Facebook, Skype and Microsoft Teams so we can still talk with friends and study together.”

For Chemical Engineering Freshman Elizabeth Crawford, who is the fourth in her immediate family to be a  Speed School graduate, readjusting to a new accountability was at first challenging, but she actually found it beneficial to her study habits. I found that as the need to learn more material popped up for me, I was actually able to learn better and do better on my tests. It was also at first jut realizing that even with all the crazy stuff going on, there’s still a lot of work to do,” she said.

Elizabeth said how the faculty modified some of her classes worked out better than she anticipated. “For the physics lab, they assigned us to work at home using household objects, which was interesting. They did a good job of staying within the normal timeframe of the classes and were accommodating by giving us a week to get them done,” she said. “For Engineering 111, which had been located in the engineering garage, we were in the middle of the most important part of building our windmills, but obviously we can’t do that now. They supplied us with some coding and some electrical work we could do online and submit reports on.” While not what she would have chosen, Elizabeth said she found once she figured out how to do her schedule, she enjoyed the flexibility of online instruction. “I’ve been pretty efficient about getting my work done on time and facing that challenge.

Industrial Engineering Senior Alex Bruns said getting everyone in sync with the technology was not easy. “Everything was new to most people so it was difficult trying to get everyone on the same page.”

Alex said he was aware that the shift to online instruction was a tough transition for the professors as well as the students.

“I’ve been talking to Dr. Gerber and she has done online classes before, but it’s different to do an intentionally online class and now have to deliver it via internet with large class sizes and ensure everyone has the information and resources they need and can get questions answered,” said Alex.

Personally, Alex said he has a hard time setting a schedule without specific times and places to be. “I live with my girlfriend, who is a Civil Engineering senior. For three of her classes, she has to attend class with Blackboard Collaborate, so she has to wake up and be ready for those, but none of my classes are like that. It is posted video lectures I can do on my own time, so there is no way to distinguish the days. It makes it hard to stay on top of everything when all the days are the same.”

Alex said he’s turned to making lists, setting reminders on his phone and keeping in touch with classmates through group chats and boards. We have group meetings for IEs in our year where we have discussion about assignments and tests and that has been helpful for external accountability,” he said.

Another factor with being a senior is having that motivation to finish when it feels less important now with all the craziness and the emotional stuff that feels overwhelming, said Alex. “For some of my friends, the feeling is ‘Is that last homework assignment really that important? Do I really need to try on that?’ This is especially for my classmates graduating who already have jobs,” he said.

Life Challenges and Isolation

COVID-19 has upended schedules and plans and hopes for many students. For Brandon, maintaining classes and logging in to lectures while finding a new place to live has been no picnic.

“I’m lucky. I’m a little bit older (27) and I’m living with my fiancée now who thankfully is willing to take care of my deadbeat butt while I try to graduate,” Brandon joked.  He worries about family. “My sister had her second child during coronavirus and we had a video chat the other day. No one was able to be there in the hospital except her husband so she was in there alone with no family or friends.”

For Elizabeth, she said having all her sisters at home where she is living now has been a blessing.  – “Being around them has helped me the most. We work out together or watch a movie together. I take time to unwind a little bit and I enjoy cooking for my family,” she said.

Elizabeth, who had been living in the engineering dorm said she misses her friends who she saw nearly every day that are now across the state or country, but she sees some good in this situation as well as challenges. “The good is revealing itself with the family time and the academic accountability being called on for students.

For Brandon, one of the toughest parts of all this has been no way to close out his senior year.

Classes are so small and we’ve been together four or five years,” said Brandon.

“No one is going to get the opportunity to say our goodbyes and move on. All our professors have sent us emails, and it’s kind of breaking my heart right now.” Brandon Burke

“They’re talking about how much fun they’d had having us, and they’re going to miss commencement, so they won’t get to hand us our diplomas anymore,” he said.

Alex agreed that the way it happened over Spring Break was emotionally difficult for seniors. “It’s hard going from being on campus and seeing everybody every day to just seeing my girlfriend and our cat. I’m introverted but at a certain point, it becomes a lot for anyone to handle especially because of how it happened over Spring Break. We already hadn’t seen each other for a week, and then we find out we’re not going to see each other rest of semester, and for some of them, they’re just gone now.”

Speed School Response

All three students said they have seen sincere and genuine efforts from Speed School faculty and administrators to help students stay on track and succeed.

“Speed School has done a great job transitioning for how unprecedented this is,” said Brandon. “My professors in Industrial Engineering have done a phenomenal job of being flexible with us and keeping us updated. It’s made it a lot easier on our end. I wish we could have completed our capstone project, but we can’t blame anyone for that. All the companies are shut down and not working anymore.”

Elizabeth said her professors always respond when she reaches out, and those efforts are much appreciated.

“I think the professors are stepping up their game in ten million ways right now to account for this.” Elizabeth Crawford

“The first couple weeks were rough with communication, but they have really stepped up in getting information to us and working with us,” said Alex. A lot of outreach and resources have been provided: ‘Here is technology you can use for group meetings, here are details about the new pass/fail policy, here are ways to maintain mental health in a state of isolation, etc. I’ve been pretty impressed with the way the faculty has handled it. I know Dr. Gerber, Dr. Ralston and Gail DePuy are all super dedicated to making sure students have all the resources to succeed.”

What’s Next for Our Students?

Brandon’s original plan post-graduation was to move to Texas with his fiancée, but that has changed abruptly. “I had a few jobs lined up for interviews and they were considering offers but with COVID -19 it’s produced a whole new level of challenge in the job market. Most companies have six week hiring freezes at a minimum. I have no idea and a lot of other students I’ve talked to have no idea what we’re going to do about pursuing careers after this. My other plan was to pursue my master’s degree while working full time. Now I’m back at the drawing board,” he said.

Elizabeth, a Grawemeyer scholar, said she is hoping to get into materials research for the university as part of that award.  The student said she “has an incredible role model” for her engineering career: her mom. An industrial engineer Elizabeth’s mother did her co-op at Yum Brands, where she is still employed today, working on sustainability and managing a team of engineers on a global scale.  As a chemical engineering major, Elizabeth said she eventually hopes to do a co-op with a distillery in town.

Campbellsville native Alex will be pursuing his Masters of Engineering at Speed School in Industrial Engineering starting this summer, and returning in work-study in the advising office when classes return to campus. “I want to go on to get my PhD and my long term goal is to eventually go into research and teach at a university,” he said. He’s optimistic about the future.

“If we’ve made it through Speed School this far, we can get through this.” Alex Bruns