The pandemic saw the Chemical and Biological Engineering Department’s capstone course, summer Field Session, transition to a remote setting.  Previously the course had been taught in a face-to-face setting in the “Unit Ops” building over many years.

The summer Field Session (Unit Operations Laboratory) course, which depends a great deal on teamwork, hands-on learning, and experimental design with near pilot-scale equipment was offered remotely due to COVID-19 limitations. With over 140 students enrolled in Field Session for Summer 2020, social distancing and lab hygiene requirements made face-to-face delivery impossible.

In order to preserve the nature of the CBE Field Session experience and deliver the required learning objectives, professors worked in the weeks leading up to the Summer to create laboratory data generators and simulators that would produce realistic laboratory data for each student team, according to the students’ experimental designs and objectives. Students used virtual laboratories such as staged distillation with kinetic mass transfer calculations, shell/tube and plate/frame heat exchangers with rigorous internal geometries, advanced fluid mechanic system models, supercomputer-based adsorption mass transfer simulations, and more. With the exception of the supercomputer-based experiment, every model represented the actual experimental equipment we have in the laboratory, and results were consistent with prior years’ data.

While instructors were initially somewhat reticent about the delivery of this course remotely, they quickly realized that nearly all of the learning outcomes for the course could be met, despite this major format change. Students produced lab reports of quality commensurate with prior years, and student evaluations of the course and instructors were consistent with face-to-face offerings of this course. The only learning outcome which was necessarily lost was that of gaining hands-on experience in operating the equipment; nevertheless, many students have signed up for socially-distanced lab time in the Fall semester to acquire this experience, and a “Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”-style video on the operation of Pumps was made available to students in the second field session. The success of this remote delivery provided instructors the opportunity to present their methods and results to the Virtual Community of Practice on Laboratory Instruction established during the pandemic by AIChE, disseminating Mines instructional materials to chemical engineering professors around the country and around the world.

In addition, course instructors maintained the “gamification” aspects of the course introduced in recent years, with this years themes being Pokémon and Star Trek. Four “houses” competed for points based on grades, course participation, and weekly in-class Kahoot! quizzes. Some of the workshops were “flipped”, allowing the introduction of more in-class active learning and practice with the material. Student evaluations during the course checkout survey revealed very similar scores to prior years for many categories, with (up to 20%!) higher scores for the newly flipped HAZOP, Graphics, and Statistics workshops. The only score that decreased noticeably was the one for the Friday meetings, which normally include free lunches in the face-to-face offering of this course. Some students responded to the challenge of remote instruction better than others, but all seemed to appreciate the faculty’s efforts. A few examples of the comments from students are included below:

“This was very brutal for me mentally and emotionally to perform to the same standards online, but I still feel rewarded for the amount and quality of work that I was able to provide. This was certainly ChemE bootcamp for me.”

“I wasn’t a huge fan of it being online but Its over now and I’m honestly kinda proud with what I was able to do with my teammates.”

“Overall, I found that despite being moved online I learned a ton in this course, and it really helped cement some concepts form previous courses. I think that while it would have been nice to be able to see the experiments in person (even in the heat of the unit ops lab), the course translated surprisingly well into an online format.”

“… you did a great job of converting the experience to online so I applaud you on that.”

“I think the faculty did a fantastic job in setting up this course online. I feel like I learned a lot! This course was very hard but now I feel that I can go out and kill it in my job next month!”

“I want to thank each professor for their dedication to student learning throughout this tumultuous time. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to transform an entire Field Session to an online platform due to COVID19, but I am very appreciative for what I learned and the experiences I gained. Thank you very much.”

Click here to read more about the unique face-to-face field session experience.