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Engineering on the Front Lines

employee working in machine shop
Faculty members in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering have begun manufacturing plastic face shields for healthcare use.

The College of Engineering adjusts to a changing landscape

Dr. Richard Keltie stands at the front of a classroom in Engineering Building III, slides for his MAE 315 Dynamics of Machines class projected behind him.

“Hello students,” he says, by way of beginning. “I guess you’ll be seeing these lectures in a few days. I’m getting used to teaching in front of nobody. I hope that everybody is doing OK.”

Keltie, a longtime professor in NC State’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE), is the only person in the room. The lecture, being recorded by staff members from NC State’s Engineering Online distance education program, will be shown to undergraduate students who were ordered to leave campus because of an outbreak of the COVID-19 respiratory disease that struck the United States in spring 2020.

Like their colleagues at colleges and universities across the country, faculty members and staff within the College saw unprecedented disruption to the spring 2020 academic semester.

While the landscape is changing daily, as of the last week in March, the university was functioning with minimal on-campus operations that included the following measures:

  • Most students who live on campus had been asked to return to their permanent residence unless given a hardship exception
  • All instruction was moving fully to online courses
  • Remote or alternative work arrangements were required for the majority of employees.
  • With minimal exceptions, almost all research laboratories and facilities were asked to cease operations and core services and facilities were being closed or significantly limited
  • All in-person NC State and College campus events and meetings had been cancelled or postponed indefinitely
  • All employee travel with state funding had been curtailed
  •  Spring 2020 University commencement exercises and alumni-focused events like Day of Giving and the annual Endowment Dinner

The College has taken up the challenge and is helping to engineer a front-line response. Faculty members and students have begun using their equipment and expertise to help get local medical providers in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina the supplies they desperately need to combat the pandemic.

At the same time, faculty and staff members are moving to online instruction and utilizing remote working capabilities to continue operations, communicate with students about their concerns and provide online instruction and individual communication.

Fortunately, the College has extensive experience with distance learning. Engineering Online offers master’s and certificate programs remotely with the infrastructure in place, plus the experience that so many faculty members in the College have with it should help make the transition easier.

Ready to Help

As the crisis deepened, healthcare systems in Raleigh and around the country faced the same problem: how would they access enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to ensure that front-line providers would be able to say healthy while treating the sick. The UNC Health system, which serves the area, asked the public for donations of critical supplies.

By the first week in March, several efforts within the College to help meet that need had gotten under way.

Faculty members began working with colleagues in the College of Textiles’ Nonwovens Institute on a production line to create a nonwoven material that could be sent to industry partners for reusable surgical mask.

MAE faculty members began using laser cutters to produce plastic face shields. Drs. Landon Grace and Tim Horn in MAE were looking into whether 3D printers on campus and in the community could be used to create needed components like ventilator valves (with FDA approval) and assembling a network of available printer capacity.

Staff members in the Biomanufacturing Training and Education Center (BTEC), part of the College, were making preparations to begin producing hand sanitizer for use on campus and in medical facilities as needed.

In the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), faculty and staff members gathered up pallets of supplies that are used in the department’s labs but could also be utilized by healthcare workers, including masks, safety glasses, face shields and disposable coats. Joseph Matthews, research operations manager in MSE, delivered the supplies to REX Hospital in Raleigh, part of the UNC Health.

“It made me proud to do it,” Matthews said. “Those people need all the help they can get.”

On-Campus Students Become Distance Students

Engineering Online offers 16 online graduate degree and certificate programs. EOnline began in 1978 with videotapes of lectures sent in the mail, but today’s students receive all class instruction and complete any other interactions with faculty members online.

Dr. Linda Krute, the program’s director, said that nearly 200 faculty members within the College have taught for the program, using studios and camera-enabled classrooms on campus maintained by EOnline and the University’s Distance Education and Learning Technology Applications (DELTA) program.

“This is the blessing that we have in the College, that so many faculty have said to us, ‘I’m so glad that I’ve taught distance ed,” she said.

Many faculty members, including Keltie, were taking advantage of E Online capabilities to record lectures for on-campus students to watch remotely. Others who had taught distance classes were able to take advantage of master’s level lectures they had recorded during previous semesters.

For Krute’s program, online instruction and homework assignment and completion continued mostly as usual as the pandemic took hold. The issue that was being discussed for online master’s students — and for other students within the College who suddenly found themselves switching from on-campus to distance learning — is how exams will be given. For EOnline students, exams can be taken on the NC State campus if they live nearby or can be given by a network of proctors available at other colleges and universities or companies that employ NC State engineering distance students. That option will be taken away with most of the country in isolation during the spring 2020 semester.

During the week of March 23 (the first week in which all instruction at NC State moved online) faculty members were conferring with students in online departmental town halls and holding virtual meetings of the College’s leadership team to work out potential issues. Along with the question of how to maintain the integrity of exams, they discussed potential issues with network bandwidth when an entire class tries to watch a lecture on the same platform and whether all students have access to computers and broadband in rural parts of the state. Other issues being examined included potential effects on financial support for graduate students sponsored by a company or government agency and whether senior design teams within the College would be able to complete their work.

Return to contents or download the Spring/Summer 2020 NC State Engineering magazine (PDF, 11MB).

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