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At Ontario’s University of Waterloo, 34 Collaborative Water Program students presented on Zoom in early December to show their real-world contribution to a water management issue. Photo credit: University of Waterloo.

Data emerging from new studies shows that the loss of labs and field trips during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a significant change for students and teachers trying to adapt to online learning in engineering and water studies in Canada and beyond.

A recent study from New York’s Cornell University examines the impact on 110 faculty and 627 students from six engineering departments in California. They have faced various challenges in virtual learning that range from computer equipment and Internet connection problems, to lack of peer-support, quiet spaces to study, focus, family mental health, or clear guidelines from instructors. Not to mention Zoom fatigue.

“Hands-on training to work with equipment, instruments and materials in controlled laboratory settings is an inherent and necessary aspect of a successful engineering education,” states the Cornell study. “However, addressing this essential aspect within a fully online teaching platform is challenging. Moreover, many students prefer to learn difficult concepts face-to-face and believe that the online education might not be the best choice for a deep level of learning.”

Many standard student services transitioned to digital platforms and, in the summer, several libraries began offering curbside pickup for books.

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In various media reports, a number of professors have mentioned that some students who may typically not raise their hand in class are more vocal online. Others, particularly more mature students, have not made the transition as smoothly. In the Cornell study, 48% of the students specified that they either do not have a computer camera or feel uncomfortable turning the camera and microphone on during the class or online exams.

The Cornell study also found that about 30% of engineering students had work-life balance issues, while more than half of students lacked motivation or did not have access to a private space to attend classes.

Another survey, by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, found that, overall, “online learning has negatively impacted the quality of university education.” The quality of education topped students’ concerns, but it was closely followed by mental-health challenges related to changes arising from the pandemic. Fifty-five percent reported this concern, which was tied with concerns about academic performance due to COVID-related changes.

At Ontario’s University of Waterloo, 34 Collaborative Water Program students presented on Zoom in early December to show their real-world contribution to a water management issue, as they attempted to make the best out of their online learning environment. Students had five minutes to present their projects – which included videos, index tools, posters and infographics – followed by a 10-minute question and answer period.

Student projects ranged from evaluations of groundwater remediation efforts to the consequences of not implementing watershed restoration in Rouge National Urban Park, and to the impact of floodplain mapping on real estate values in Ontario.

“The impacts of COVID-19 accelerated changes to our course plan in order to adapt to the virtual world, and what we landed on was an exciting new opportunity for students to apply the skills they learned in Water 601 to the real world,” said course co-instructor Simon Courtenay, professor in Waterloo’s School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability.

For engineering faculty, converting courses from the conventional face to-face to online format has been time-consuming and requires the instructor’s familiarity with online learning or instructional tools. Another issue is the difficulty of designing fair and yet rigorous online assessments to minimize cheating and plagiarism.

The spring Cornell survey found that about 60% of faculty needed to learn about advanced features of learning management systems such as BeachBoard or Blackboard Collaborate. Close to 40% of the faculty needed to learn how to create a syllabus for an online class or become more competent with using Zoom features.

Over fall 2020, Ishwar Puri, the dean of engineering at McMaster University, said that faculty collaborated with the educational innovation company Quanser to develop software that brings interactive and immersive lab experiences to students through virtual reality and gaming platforms. In a column for CBC News, he wrote that first-year engineering students will “learn technical skills in virtual labs and apply them as part of a team in a virtual design studio.”

University of Toronto Professor Elham Marzi, who works in the Institute for Studies in Transdisciplinary Engineering (ISTEP), has moved to teaching digitally via Blackboard Collaborate, a virtual classroom integrated within the university’s Quercus online learning portal.

“I’ve found that there is an abundance of help and support when it comes to adapting,” Marzi said in a statement. “We’re all trying and learning as we go along. My colleagues and I share our experiences with each other as we make the best of these changes.”

Fellow Professor Chirag Variawa, in ISTEP, says he’s now piloting video explainers on the APS106 YouTube channel to simplify concepts and further motivate his students.

Early in the pandemic, Engineers Canada issued a statement about its position on virtual learning. “Programs that temporarily move courses that would normally be delivered in-person to an online learning environment are not required to submit a notice of significant change to the Canadian Engineering Accreditation Board,” the organization said in March.

The University of Victoria’s (UVic) Science Venture summer program has annually provided programming in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to thousands of children and youth on Vancouver Island each year, with summer camps, clubs and workshops that are known for their strong emphasis on hands-on, in-person learning. Taylor Reynolds, acting manager of programs, noted how the focus has shifted during the pandemic.

“We were basically getting them stoked on STEM and providing them with hands-on outdoor activities that they could do themselves at home,” said Reynolds. “Our big goal was to create something that didn’t demand a lot of screen time and to sow the seeds of exploration and inquiry in them.”

In 2020, UVic ran 55 week-long STEM camps for more than 1,600 young people, at no cost to families. This was close to the same as last year’s total.

In October, Statistics Canada released a financial forecast for the university sector over the 2020-2021 academic year that suggested universities could lose $377 million to $3.4 billion in revenue for 2020.

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