Engineering Classes Move Online

3/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Duke Engineering faculty members are quickly innovating new ways of delivering their coursework at a distance

Garage Lab
Engineering Classes Move Online

Faced with the challenge of helping to protect their students from the COVID-19 pandemic unfolding across the globe, Duke Engineering faculty members had little more than two weeks to figure out how to deliver their coursework online. Luckily they’re engineers, and rapid innovation is nothing they didn’t already have waiting in their toolbox. While updates and adaptations continue to evolve as teachers and students alike rise to meet this challenge, the stories emerging from their initial implementations are impressive and encouraging.

Determined to keep students learning remotely, George Delagrammatikas, assistant chair and director of master’s studies in MEMS, took inspiration from tech garage startup legends Apple, Google and Amazon and worked quickly to trick out his own garage. Set up to mimic—as best as it can—the lab he usually teaches in Hudson Hall, the garage will support master’s students in the MEMS capstone class, who will send Delagrammatikas designs and computer files for him to 3D-print, prototype, assemble and test.

“We’ll debug, redesign and improve these designs together over Zoom,” said Delagrammatikas. “The students provide the minds, I provide the hands.”

The experiments will be used by all MEMS grads and undergrads in the new engineering building opening in Fall 2020, while simultaneously fulfilling the current students’ graduate project requirements.

A pair of hands works with jello in a kitchenAnd in another example of creative course changes, senior design students working on a large animal pulse oximeter with Martin Brooke, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Nan Jokerst, the J. A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, were sent care packages from their professors. The packages were mailed directly from Digikey, an electronic components supplier, and contained materials like soldering kits that will let the students continue to work on their projects at home. The pulse oximeters being designed typically use light to measure tissue properties, but in lieu of working with animal tissue in the lab as in the past, the students will use Jell-O in their kitchens.


Meanwhile, in the “Introduction to Medical Instrumentation” course, led by Patrick Wolf, an associate professor fo biomedical engineering, students are pursuing particularly timely projects as they learn how to build spirometers (diagnostic tools to measure respiratory flow). Senior lab administrator Matt Brown set up a makeshift lab in his own home in order to show the device in action and create datasets for the students to use as they create the relevant virtual circuits. Brown’s virtual lab is supporting other classes including Jonathan Viventi’s “Projects in Biomedical Engineering.” Prior to Spring Break, students in Viventi’s course had designed circuit boards, but didn’t have a chance to build them. Using Zoom, Brown will work with the different student teams to assemble and test their projects. 

These efforts will be paired with videos created by Marcus Henderson, the senior laboratory manager in Duke BME. Henderson and his team have been making videos that demonstrate various lab concepts for students, including a video for “Biomaterials and Biomechanics” that will teach students how to integrate accelerations to determine the velocity and traveled distance of a cart pushed by Henderson. 



Tensegrity TowerFor the past several years, students in CE132: Engineering the Planet have built large-scale sculptures made of tubes and cords on the grounds around Hudson Hall. These “Tensegrity Towers” are defined by islands of compression (the tubes) within a sea of tension (the cords). By balancing the push and pull of these elemental components, the system achieves a stable form in which integrity is derived from internal tension. This year’s exercise in 3D thinking will be scaled down to tabletop size, said professor of the practice of civil and environmental engineering David Schaad, and thinks that household items like chopsticks and straws might stand in for the usual building materials.

“Making these kinds of changes is not easy, to say the least, either logistically or emotionally,” said Ravi Bellamkonda, Vinik Dean of the Pratt School of Engineering. “But I have been impressed every day by how our community has drawn together—even as we are physically apart—to figure out creative ways to continue our vital work of learning, teaching and advancing engineering research to serve society.”