April 28, 2020

Despite the shift to online classes, students are still taking part in research projects this spring. According to Jessi Smith, the associate vice chancellor for research and the research integrity officer, research duties not requiring physical contact are proceeding in whatever ways they can. 

     “Faculty and students are working on their writing, doing data analyses, reading literature and planning out future studies,” Smith said.  

     While no in-person projects are taking place currently, many students are continuing to work on capstone projects as a part of their graduation requirement. For many undergraduate students, capstone projects are not only a requirement to graduate, but an opportunity to take part in research-based projects.  

     For Emma Campell, a senior majoring in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE), the campus closure meant re-orienting what the project would be and how the specifications could be met in the timeline. Campell’s team has been working since the beginning of the fall semester on building jousting robots to demonstrate control theory, a principle of control systems engineering, for STEM high school students.  

     “We were lucky we had finished testing the week before this all started. Right now, we are having to go through one person on the team to get our body 3-D printed,” Campell said. 

     With the campus-wide shut down beginning in March, the team had to change specifications of the practicing demo, as they are no longer able to demonstrate the robotic arm in person.  

     “Even if the robots are finished in full, we can’t finish [demonstrations] of the project,” Campell said. 

     Physically manufacturing the robot has presented itself as an additional challenge of the project, according to Campell. With social distancing, Campell and her classmates are no longer able to access the Circuits Lab on campus and they had to rely on a professor to retrieve equipment for the team. Even with the assistance of faculty, Campbell and her teammates have to do without many pieces of larger equipment originally necessary for the project.  

     Despite the challenges, Campell said that the MAE faculty has encouraged communication and ensured that student projects are able to adapt to the changes.  

     Across all departments, faculty are having to work with students in innovative ways to ensure that research projects can continue, and that students can complete their capstone projects on time. According to Peter Gorder, associate professor and chair of the MAE Department and the professor overseeing the senior design program, all capstone projects for MAE students will continue as planned, with adjustments as necessary. 

     “Our faculty are finding creative ways to provide those learning experiences,” Smith said. “I’ve been so impressed with the commitment our faculty mentors are showing to being flexible and innovative in working with their student researchers remotely.”  

     According to Gorder, student projects have happened off-site, and support has continued by adjusting requirements as necessary.   

     While many students and faculty are finding ways to work around the campus closure, the stay-at-home orders have significant impacts on the capacity for research and projects to take place. According to Smith, it may be a while before the long-term negative impacts to research are known. For now, researchers and students are focusing on tasks that are easily accessible online.