Page 6 - Penn State Civil and Environmental Engineering Magazine
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 Remote teaching, with a dash of empathy
The department used a cooperative approach to transition quickly to online instruction in spring 2020
By Tim Schley
The task ahead was daunting: how do you plan and upload an online curriculum worthy of Penn State engineering students in a matter of days?
“When confronted by a crisis, engineers look at it and say, ‘Let’s define the problem, let’s come up with a solution, and let’s get to work,’” said Martin Pietrucha, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “That’s just how this place rolls.”
Thus, the flurry of emails began as faculty and staff traded ideas. Should you upload full lectures or just clips? What do you do if an online quiz is not working? How do you demonstrate your lab? Are you available to be a guest lecturer? How are you talking to your students about all of this?
“I have enjoyed watching and interacting with my colleagues who are all trying really hard to adapt quickly,” Caitlin Grady said in March. Grady
is an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute
at Penn State. “We’re all sharing best practices, asking questions and figuring out what to do as a collective.”
In the spring, Grady taught an undergraduate course, CE 360: Fluid Mechanics, and a graduate course, CE 597: Ethics, Engineering, and Environmental Management. For her undergraduates, she adopted the
flipped classroom model of teaching, where she provided them with pre- recorded lectures they could watch on their own prior to class.
During the regularly scheduled lecture time, Grady organized a video conference with everyone to discuss the material together in more detail. This discussion, she noted, was useful to assess how everyone in the class handled the complex transition to remote learning.
“Their entire environment has been shifted,” Grady said. “My approach
has been to acknowledge that and talk openly about it with all my students and discuss what their needs are.”
Grady was quick to note that her empathy also applied to the students on her research team. This past
year, Grady was awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER award to examine where the responsibility falls for managing critical food, energy, and water systems, a relevant topic in the midst of a global pandemic.
Even though her team was able to work from home, Grady did not expect them to sacrifice their well-being for the project.
“My research productivity is not worth their sacrifice,” Grady said. “If they want to keep working on research because it gives them some structure in their day, then great, I support that. If they need to
just focus on their own personal lives, I support that, too.”
Grady is hardly the only faculty with
this empathetic attitude. Pietrucha serves as the undergraduate adviser for the department and understood the pressure the transition added to many of his students.
“I’ve been working with students here for 30 years, and I’ve seen that they have this incredible inner strength.”
“Be as forgiving as you can,” Pietrucha said. “We don’t need to throw away standards, but be as kind as you possibly can because everyone is struggling with something.”
Still, Pietrucha was proud of the resilience shown by everyone in the department, especially the students.
“I’ve been working with students here for 30 years, and I’ve seen that they have this incredible inner strength,” Pietrucha said. “As we look to the future, we can rest easy. They’re going to go out into the field and do some really great things.”

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