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“I don’t want to lose some of the things that we’ve built” – post-Covid learning

When St. Clair College’s School of Engineering Technologies, Apprenticeship and Skilled Trades was forced to abruptly suspend in-person learning in March 2020 due to Covid-19, instructors in all programs had to make a quick shift to online classes.

Professor Thomas Forget sits in front of a green screen over which he projects a photo of the College lab filled with robots. Photo: St Clair

"I've been astounded by the ingenuity of the faculty"

Those whose courses require students to practise with equipment and technology they don’t have at home faced an extra challenge, even after some in-person classes resumed.

“It’s pushed us into preparing our students across the board to being prepared for real life, being prepared for proper employment”

But staff are using their ingenuity and their garages to teach hands-on courses to students online.

Thomas Forget, a professor in the Electromechanical Engineering Technician – Robotics program, said he was fortunate he could take home his classroom sidekick – an ABB YuMi collaborative robot.

He turned part of his garage into a lecture hall. With the two-armed robot at his elbow, he conducted interactive video lectures. Through trial and error, he learned how to make recordings that are engaging and easy to follow.

He started breaking the ice by inviting his first-year students to video chat open mic nights. Forget, a musician, showed them his drums, which are in the same sound-proof garage as his home lecture hall. Some of the students who played music pulled out their instruments. They jammed, chatted, drank coffee and got comfortable being in their new virtual classroom.

While Forget had a robot at home, his students did not. So, he made detailed videos of himself using the chimp sized YuMi and students had to point out what he was doing wrong.

In the fall of 2020, he taught a second-year robotic vision systems class entirely online with the YuMi’s help.

This winter term, students in his first-year industrial robotics course have two classes on campus, where they practise with robots in a lab. On Fridays, Forget lectures from his garage.

“As I give the lecture, I’m able to show the robot doing the tasks I’m lecturing on,” he said.

Forget sits in front of a green screen over which he projects a photo of the College lab filled with robots. He wants the students to feel like they’re in a familiar space. The lectures are recorded so students can review them.

Instructor-produced videos that guide students through lessons have improved the program, Forget said. He sees it continuing after the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Dale Haggith, co-ordinator of the Mechanical Engineering Technology – Automotive Product Design program, agrees.

When the College can return to full face-to-face classes, “I don’t think I want to lose some of the things that we’ve built,” he said, though he longs to get back in the classroom.

Haggith now spends most of his workdays in a 2,200-square-foot barn on his family’s rural property. For one assignment, students must use computer-aided design (CAD) to create a three-dimensional model of an engine cylinder. During class, the students make moulds of the engine intake and exhaust ports with playdough Haggith mixed up with his children. (“It actually works really well,” he says.)

Students take the playdough moulds home to complete the measurements they need for the CAD work. It’s just one component of an assignment that had to be changed for online delivery.

Students are also learning to write proper emails and communicate professionally online, Haggith said. “It’s pushed us into preparing our students across the board to being prepared for real life, being prepared for proper employment.”

I’ve been astounded by the ingenuity of the faculty to continue delivering their programs with very few hiccups. This is where the innovation of St. Clair College staff rose above the ordinary.

About the author:

Waseem Habash is Vice president, Academic, at St. Clair College: a public community college with three campuses in Ontario, Canada. Science, Technology, Engineering and Math are critical areas of study in its Faculty of Engineering Technology.

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