Students Prepare for Another Online Term

All classes are being taught remotely

By Aditee Prabhutendolkar | Published 09/28/2020

As humanity grapples with a pandemic unprecedented in modern times, schools worldwide are struggling with the difficulties of remote learning, and Caltech is no exception. Techers are zipping in and out of Zoom meetings and Discord servers more than ever; online communication is especially important at a university that values collaboration so strongly.

While most classes have been reasonably converted to an online version, many lab classes can’t make the transition to the new normal with the same finesse.

Traditionally, freshmen who want to pursue options in Chem or ChemE take Ch 3a Fundamental Techniques of Experimental Chemistry in the fall term. But aspiring chemists and chemical engineers in the class of 2024 have been encouraged to put off taking Ch 3a until a later, hopefully more orthodox, term; truth be told, there’s no ideal online equivalent to an in-person lab class.

Even when the pandemic first hit, Caltech administrators and the ASCIT Academics and Research Committee were searching for ways to keep the lab classes, especially those involving an engineering aspect, in-person with safe conditions. According to Blacker Hovse ARC Rep Alex Hong (Ch ‘23), “The original hybrid plan was to have ME 72 and EE 110 in-person. Students taking either of these classes would live on campus, quarantined within their project groups, and take all other classes remotely.”

But these plans were “torpedoed” early in August when the LA County Department of Public Health made the sweeping decision that, as part of new COVID-19 regulations, undergraduates wouldn’t be returning to college campuses in the near future.

So what’s the current state of these classes? Some of them--including EE 110c Embedded Systems Design Laboratory, ME 13 Mechanical Prototyping, and Ch 5b Advanced Techniques of Synthesis and Analysis--are cancelled entirely, but might be offered online later this year if needed.

EE 110, a class that’s heavily reliant on in-person training, is usually split into three terms. As said by Julian Sanders (EE ‘21, Blacker/Ruddock), EE 110a and b involve “assembly programming for a pretty advanced microcontroller” as well as designing projects.

However, very few students decided to take EE 110c online last year, and those that did received “mail/pick up parts for [their] project and tried to finish.” Given the difficulties, “an in-person version will be offered as soon as anyone's allowed back on campus,” although we have no method of predicting when that will be.

ME 13 is required for MechE sophomores before taking ME 14 Design and Fabrication or ME 72 Engineering Design Laboratory, which are third term classes. According to Evan Dicker (ME ‘23, Blacker), ME 13 “is normally a series of demonstrations by the prof and then scheduled sessions where you come in and produce a part using the knowledge you gained from the demonstration.” It’s understandable that a suitable online format couldn’t be found for this class. But if circumstances don’t improve, such a format will become necessary to accommodate MechE students.

Perhaps the way ME 72 Engineering Design Lab has adapted to present conditions can serve as an example. According to Maheck Jerez, (ME ‘21, Blacker) this project-based course centers around mobility-based “tasks to be performed by a group of legged robots... These robots will be designed by teams, piece part drawings will be sent to the Caltech shop for [manufacturing], and the finished parts will be returned to the teams via mail where they will be assembled and will perform the tasks assigned. The teams will still be scored based on how they perform with each bot, and there will still be a winner.”

Elaine Lowinger (ME ‘21, Blacker/Ruddock) adds that “a large part of it is shifting some of the focus from manufacturing in house to gaining design experience and focusing on how to outsource parts... Therefore, the competition will be more oriented for ‘at home’ capable small competitions, rather than the large display we usually have.”

Despite these improvements, online education isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Sarah Barrett (ME ‘23, originally ‘22, Blacker/Ruddock), is one of many students who elected to take a gap year. When speaking of her plans for this year, she said, “I am currently doing an internship with Xos Trucks! I'm a development engineer intern and I'm working on design and prototyping for the battery team.”

The shift to online education hasn’t been simple, but the Caltech community is continuing to find innovative ways to deal with this situation. We don’t know whether a return to campus will occur in the foreseeable future, but we can always hope for the best.

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