Student Perspective: Electrical Engineering Education Amid COVID-19
By: Elizabeth Zidar, Northwestern University
It was early March, and I was studying for my physics final the next week with a few of my friends, when I learned that all the rumors about an actual global pandemic were legitimate. When all of our exams became optional and we were being told to drop everything and just get home as soon as possible, my friends and I realized that our lives were never going to be the same again. Universities would not be sending us home and cancelling finals if COVID-19 were not a genuine threat to our safety. A few days later, I packed up my dorm, jokingly fist-bumped my friends goodbye, and drove home for our now two-week-long Spring Break. Little did I know that it would be over six months until I saw them again in person.
Luckily, I only lived about 20 minutes away. I am about to begin my third year at Northwestern University, and I am studying Electrical Engineering. During the Spring Quarter when all of my courses were abruptly moved online, I at least had the privilege of being in the same time-zone as my university, but my friends who live in California or Germany or China had to adjust their entire lives just to make it to our Zoom classes on time. One major part of college is socialization--meeting new people, making friends, studying or hanging out together--which was essentially lost with the change to online learning. Not seeing anyone around my age other than my three brothers for six months is a life I would probably not choose for myself ever again. On Zoom, you are not able to chat with a new study partner in the few minutes before class or introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. The classes I found to be most engaging were the ones with class group chats--sometimes you need a place to ask your peers for homework help or to send notes, but sometimes you also need a place to laugh at jokes or smile at pictures of someone’s dog. Everyone is desperate for human interaction right now, so every little glimpse of camaraderie made a big difference.
Throughout the first few weeks of going online, everyone was still getting used to this new norm. It definitely took some professors longer than others to embrace the change and to recognize that they really need to understand Zoom and Google Drive and Canvas in order to give us any semblance of a quality education, but there were also those professors who went above and beyond to make their classes fun and engaging. I am looking forward to this Fall quarter because everyone has had much more time to prepare for a remote version of their courses. My experience this summer has definitely reinforced my hope, since I was able to peek behind the curtain and see all of the work our professors are doing to make our education worthwhile.
Because my plans to study abroad in Berlin this summer were cancelled, I met with John Janowiak at ECEDHA, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Heads Association, right around the time their annual conference was unfortunately also cancelled. As an intern for ECEDHA this summer, I worked on many different projects, but my biggest job was to build up the ECE Lab Pros Network, a place for all of the Lab Managers and Technicians and Supervisors at universities across the country to share their stories and online teaching experiences and to collaborate with each other in preparation for the Fall. We hosted webinars throughout the summer, which I got to attend and offer feedback as an actual engineering student. It was always so reassuring to know that hundreds of Lab Pros took time out of their busy summers to come together to discuss their suggestions for new equipment or new techniques for cleaning or creative ways for students to socialize with each other. The world of higher education is usually so competitive, but this summer I truly saw the solidarity among my professors, because how else are we supposed to get through this? Collaboration is the new name of the game, and I had an excellent example set for me this summer.
Looking ahead, I am very eager to start classes. Although first- and second-year students will not be on campus this quarter, I will at least be able to see some of my peers again. Then, once this quarter is over, I have the opportunity to co-Chair a panel of engineering students from universities across the country during the ECEDHA Lab Pros Network Summit in December. By then, we will have experienced two different versions of remote education (the Spring and this Fall), and I am sure my peers and I will have a lot to say about our new normal.