What to Expect in the 2020 Fall Semester

COVID-19 has us all out of sorts. The economy. Social life. Our health. Hell, we even ran out of Analog Discovery 2 as a direct result of it. As we enter the last part of 2020 (thankfully), we approach the horizon of a new school year. Spring 2020 was a doozy itself, but we’ll choose to pretend it didn’t happen because of how uncharacteristic it was. This Fall semester, however, has been noodled on and thought about for months – likely beginning with exasperated thoughts pre-graduation last year, as professors slowly realized that this situation wasn’t going to just “go away”. Now that we’ve had a bit of time to prepare, how are engineering classrooms going to look? Will they be fully remote, as they were in many places from March to May? Are universities attempting to regain normalcy by conducting in-person labs?

There are a number of things to think about with the reopening higher education facilities. In a recent Roundtable Discussion with ECEDHA (The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department Head Association), we discussed moving forward into the academic school year. The discussion, which took place in late July, brought up many salient points about the process of reopening schools. Do we have disinfectant protocols in place for lab equipment? Will learning be synchronous or asynchronous? Will it be professor-modeled courses, or will students have access to portable equipment like the Analog Discovery 2 at home and be in charge of their own hands-on learning? You can view the full discussion/webinar below.

The answer to these questions, it turns out, is, “all of the above”. It appears that every university is acting differently, and requiring different things of students. We asked the subReddit /r/EngineeringStudents about how their fall semesters were looking, and the responses ran the gamut. User /u/LewsTherinKinslayer3 said “Most (classes) are online, but my electronics lab is in person, and my data analysis exams (three of them apparently) are in person. I have two classes back to back that are synchronous where I have to actually go online and listen to the lecture live. Two straight hours of sitting at my computer listening to lectures is not going to be easy for me, especially since it’s early in the morning.

Another student is being relying on their own ingenuity to combat the fatigue of working from home: “In order to physically prepare for the semester I purchased two identical counter tops/desks in order to create a secondary, classroom/workbench area that will allow me to spread out for lectures and labs. It will also prevent me from sitting in front of my distracting three monitor desktop setup while attempting to do work.

/u/MrBabarino’s classes will be “conducted in an online setting and the lab which was once conducted in a single room is now spread out between two rooms. No lab partners. Recommended to wash hands before and after lab. Sanitizing of stations before and after lab.” One other student’s university went as far as to purchase required tools, package them into take-home kits, and sell them at a discounted price to students.

There is no right answer as to what Fall Semester “should” look like, and there isn’t a confirming opinion of what it will look like. We’re engineers. We’re the “Finders of Solutions”. We’ll have to adapt classrooms based on a number of unique factors, and no learning environment will be the same. But – and this is the important part – there is a light at the end of the tunnel (coincidentally, a tunnel built by engineers).

It might be a while before we see learning environments like this again.

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