Students use active learning to solve COVID-19 problems

The pervasive effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can leave us all feeling powerless at times. Students in the course Engineering Processes for Environmental Sustainability (BEE 2510) took back some power during the fall semester by addressing critical problems related to pandemic.

Instructors Jillian Goldfarb, assistant professor of biological and environmental engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), and Alex Maag, postdoctoral associate with Cornell’s Active Learning Initiative, assigned students to solve problems related to COVID-19, from the logistics of vaccine storage and transportation, to the disinfection of public spaces, and the sanitation and reuse of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Using the pandemic as the context for a student project was not without challenges, and the instructors hesitated to ask students to focus on an issue that might be a source of pain or uncertainty for some.

“We were nervous about assigning a COVID-19-related project,” Goldfarb said, “but the way we approached it empowered students to feel like there were solutions to these problems.”

Their approach hinged on the critical step of building a sense of community, Maag added.

First Goldfarb and Maag had the class work on group problem-solving by assigning various smaller tasks during class discussions. As students became comfortable working with each other in teams, they eventually were ready to work in groups on the final project.

The community-building exercises paid off. The students produced technical reports that proposed creative, efficient and technically sound solutions to PPE shortages and vaccine distribution.

Both instructors were impressed with the degree to which the class of primarily second-year students applied a broad range of concepts covered in the course.

“Students did a lot of outside-the-box thinking on the projects,” Maag said. “As a gateway course, the class is very broad in scope so we can’t go very deep into any one topic, but they took nearly all the concepts from class and connected them in their reports.”

“We were nervous about assigning a COVID-19-related project, but the way we approached it empowered students to feel like there were solutions to these problems.”

Jillian Goldfarb

One group used geomapping to optimize vaccine distribution across the country. Another contacted their hometown hospitals to ask about PPE shortages as they developed requirements for designing sanitizing equipment.

Goldfarb also noted that the project inspired students’ passion for thinking about possible solutions and applying what they learned in class to areas about which many of them knew very little.

“The students were surprised by how much the introductory engineering knowledge they gained in this class could be so widely used to solve these problems,” she said, “and that will give them confidence as they go forward.”

Goldfarb and Maag developed their assignment with support from a 2019 grant from the Active Learning Initiative, through which the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering is helping undergraduates apply their knowledge to complex current issues.

The project was funded by CALS and a gift from Alex ’87 and Laura Hanson ’87. The Active Learning Initiative, developed within the College of Arts and Sciences with help from the Hansons, is supported by Cornell’s Office of the Vice Provost for Academic Innovation and the Center for Teaching Innovation (CTI).

For more information on the initiative, contact CTI.

Dave Winterstein is a communication specialist in the Center for Teaching Innovation.

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Abby Butler