Long experience with distance learning helps College of Engineering & Mines succeed

When COVID-19 pushed classes fully online, UND’s 31 years of training engineers remotely helped ensure a smooth transition

Online students in Mechanical Engineering 201 at UND normally come to campus for a week-long, hands-on summer lab to build and test a robot prototype that they’ve spent the semester designing. This year, the project is to build a quad copter – shown above in a computer-aided design or CAD representation – using components made on a 3D printer. Students will submit files to be 3D printed at UND. Those files then will be mailed to each group member for assembly (along with some electronics to test out that part of the design), then forwarded to the next team member to add his or her components to the unmanned aerial vehicle. The final student will conduct the test flight. Image courtesy of the UND College of Engineering & Mines.

Brian Tande paused. The dean of UND’s College of Engineering & Mines, he’d been asked: was there anyone else — an online program administrator, for example — whom a reporter who’s interested in UND’s distance engineering program should talk to?

Then Tande laughed. “In the college? No, and I think that brings up a good point,” he said.

“And that is, we don’t have an online or a distance education coordinator — because it’s everybody. You know, it’s just part of what we do here, so that even before the pandemic, roughly half of our students were online.

“For years, it has been a huge part of what we do.”

Around the country, the coronavirus caught colleges and universities by surprise, forcing them to move virtually all classroom instruction online. That’s been a very real challenge: just last week, the Associated Press reported that students at several U.S. universities “are filing lawsuits against their schools demanding partial refunds on tuition and campus fees, saying they’re not getting the caliber of education they were promised.”

For many engineering schools, the hurdles have been even higher, given that engineering programs typically call for students to get hands-on experience in workshops and labs.

But the College of Engineering & Mines at UND entered this era from a position of strength. That’s because the College has been teaching engineering remotely for more than 30 years, and for more than 20 of those years, has offered a suite of fully accredited programs that are delivered via distance to undergraduate and graduate students.

Chemical engineering. Civil engineering. Biomedical engineering. Geological engineering. Petroleum engineering. To name a few.

“I started at UND in 2006, and I was teaching online courses right away,” Tande said.

“A lot of people right now, around the country and around the world, they’ve been forced to learn how to teach online suddenly — in the middle of the semester. But in our case, most of our faculty have had distance education as just an inherent part of what they do.

“So we don’t even have a clear separation between ‘This is an online course’ and ‘this is an on-campus course,’” Tande continued. “They’re pretty much blended across the board.”

As described in the caption above, mechanical engineering students at UND are building a quad copter using parts that are 3D-printed at the university. Shown here is the print tray in the Stratasys 3D printer holding the 3D-printed frame arms for the quad copter. Image courtesy of the College of Engineering & Mines.

Challenges met

Understand, “blended” hasn’t meant “all online, all the time” until recently. That means the College’s faculty still had to transition from having some online students to having all of their students be online.

But the College’s long experience with distance education made that change much easier, Tande said.

“There have certainly been challenges, especially when it comes to transitioning our lab courses and design courses to remote instruction,” he said.

“But I really feel that we have been much better prepared than most. And as I mentioned, our faculty have had a lot of experience teaching remotely, and that has served them well.”

The College’s history with distance education stretches back to to the 1980s, when a 3M manager proposed a UND engineering course for the company’s employees nationwide. The College said yes; and last year, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of UND’s distance engineering program, UND Today chronicled the result.

A terrific anecdote from that article paints a picture of the program’s origins:

“In the late 1980s, Arnie Johnson had a new nickname: Fuzzy Arnie. …

“(UND Professor) Johnson, who would also chair the Department of Electrical Engineering, taught the first ever distance-education class in engineering at UND, and ostensibly across the country.

“Lectures, led in empty auditoriums that resembled TV studios more than college classrooms, rolled on videotape to be snail-mailed to students. Technology, at the time, was very much still in its grainy inception, capturing blurry imagery. Hence, to the engineering learners beyond the Grand Forks campus, Johnson became Fuzzy Arnie.

“‘When the students came for lab the first year, they got to see what Arnie really looked like,’” said Johnson, who has since retired.”

Over the decades, videocassettes gave way to DVDs. They in turn yielded to online classes as the Internet’s capabilities grew.

Today, UND engineering classes typically are heard by students in the classroom, students attending online, and students who download and listen to the class later on.

Several degrees can be earned entirely online. Others — such as chemical, civil and mechanical engineering — ask remote-learning students to come to campus for intensive, one- to two-week-long lab experiences in the summer.

“We love it when those distance students come to campus,” Tande said. “You have a student whom you’ve had in three or four classes, but have never seen face-to-face. You get to know them and see the common experiences that students from all over the country have here.

“Then a few days later, you see them wearing UND gear, and you know they’re really proud to be a part of the campus experience.”

As UND mechanical engineering students – working remotely – assemble their quadcopter (using the process described in the captions above), they test their components using equipment such as the devices shown here. Image courtesy of the College of Engineering & Mines.

More innovation to come

This spring, of course, the buildings have been quiet as all instruction has moved online. But the laboratory and hands-on work continue. That vital work gets accomplished through such means as computer-simulated labs, virtual-reality labs, and assembly kits that students can work on at home, Tande said.

“For example, we’re now recording certain experiments,” he said. “We’ll have someone in the lab do the experiment. We’ll have a narrator describe each step.

“Then we’ll provide the student with some data sets so they can do the analysis and so on. That’s the kind of approach we’re relying on this summer.”

Students at the College appreciate the effort.

“Things are really going well this semester, even though the transition that has taken place over the past few months,” said Noe’ Lopez, a UND senior who’s pursuing a B.S. in mechanical engineering.

“I’m proud to say that UND has done such a top-tier job ensuring that the transition to online classes has been a smooth one. … UND is a gem, and I’m so glad I followed the advice of my mentors early on who suggested I receive my education from the University of North Dakota.”

Steven Tkach agreed. “The distance learning is absolutely great,” said Tkach, whose UND degree will be in civil engineering.

“(T)he quality of education I am receiving online is the same as if I was sitting in a classroom. I would debate that online delivery in effectively teaching a subject is actually better than being in a classroom. I have the ability to pause, rewind, or fast forward a lecture to make sure I understand the subject matter.”

The lesson of the above is clear, Tande said. And if Tande were to address an audience of his fellow engineering deans, most of whom would be wondering how to succeed at distance learning, he’d sum that lesson up in four words: It can be done.

“We’ve definitely proven that,” he said. “Of course, the pressure is now on, because a lot of schools are learning that they can teach online, so we’re probably going to see more competition. But that just means we’ll need to be even more innovative — and we’ve proven we can do that, too.”