COVID-19 presents unique challenges for engineering technology instruction at polytechnics

30, Nov, 2020

EDMONTON, Nov. 30, 2020 – For polytechnics whose education of engineering technology students often relies on hands-on instruction, COVID-19 has presented an array of challenges. The good news is that engineering technology instructors have marshalled their trademark ingenuity and inventiveness in finding solutions to keep Alberta engineering technology students on track to completing their education and advancing into successful careers, despite the pandemic.

Engineering technology education is, in most cases, three years of instruction compressed into an intense two-year program at any of the four polytechnics in the province: NAIT; SAIT; Red Deer College; and Lethbridge College. Of the Association of Science and Engineering Technology Professionals of Alberta’s (ASET) 16,000 members, approximately 2,500 are full-time students.

Prior to COVID-19, 30 to 50 per cent of teaching hours for engineering technology programs at SAIT were scheduled as lab time. With the emergence of the pandemic, instructors left the campus and grappled with the dilemma of how to creatively transition in-person instruction to the new normal. Instructors - who would typically prepare for the fall term by refreshing reliable lesson plans from a previous term - had to this year redesign their entire courses in some cases.

For school of construction house labs that are always taught in person, a lab instructor who previously taught 16 students at a time has created video content, including of live construction sites and manufacturing facilities previously only simulated in labs. He now team-teaches with fellow faculty members to reinforce building concepts from other courses, enhancing students’ learning experience.

“A six hour a week course can’t be turned into six hours of Zoom lectures. Faculty have moved face-to-face course time - what we call synchronous learning - into asynchronous activities,” said Reva Bond Ramsden, dean of SAIT’s school of construction, academic division. “Some of it may involve an activity that students can undertake at any time, a video they can watch or an article they can read. This flexibility is enabling us to better personalise students’ education, meeting them where they are at.”

In NAIT’s department of biomedical engineering technology, courses not approved for in-person delivery are being taught online through Microsoft Teams. The department has had to loan out lab equipment and supplies to students - such as digital trainers (electronic circuit prototyping tool) - and students have purchased additional supplies/equipment and received lab instruction virtually.

In-person labs are provided for activities not conducive to online instruction, such as soldering and analog electronics, where students need access to specific kinds of equipment that can’t be borrowed or easily purchased by them. In these situations, NAIT follows a strict protocol of procedures for student/staff check-in, cleaning, and scheduling processes, and social distancing and wearing of PPE. NAIT has also scheduled pre-lab information sessions and prepared pre-lab videos through Microsoft Teams to offer virtually what doesn't require on-campus work.

These changes have increased workload for all instructors who have had to modify lectures and labs for online delivery, research online teaching methods and tools for delivery, and transfer exams to a format that works online.

“The fact that engineering technology courses are being delivered effectively and in the best interest of students is the result of instructors initiating a series of small solutions, sacrifices and compromises to make this possible,” said Kevin Whelan, facilitator in NAIT’s continuing education department and vice president on ASET’s council. “The resourcefulness and collaboration that are embedded into a lot of the technology programs have shone through during this pandemic.”

“It’s no surprise to ASET that Alberta’s polytechnics have applied the innovation that is the hallmark of the engineering technology profession to finding safe and effective ways to continue that education for students in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis,” said ASET CEO Barry Cavanaugh.

Nothing works in Alberta without ASET members; they are the behind-the-scenes, hard-working women and men who keep this province safe. ASET members represent a wide range of sectors, including civil engineering and construction, avionics, biomedical, chemical, computers, electrical, environmental, geological, instrumentation, oil and gas, and telecommunications. From the moment Albertans wake up in the morning and turn on a light switch or shower until the end of the day, they rely on the work of these professionals.

Technicians install cable and phone, monitor traffic, work in labs, and serve as process workers in refineries and manufacturing. Technologists design plans with engineers, create commercial buildings and return well sites properly to nature. They ensure fast-acting telephone networks, smart bus connections, proper water pressure at home, perfectly clean water to drink, reliable natural gas service and electrical power, smooth roads on which to drive, and responsible oil and gas exploration/production/processing/and distribution.

About ASET

ASET is the professional self-regulatory organization for engineering technologists and technicians in Alberta. ASET currently represents over 16,000 members, including full-time technology students, recent graduates and fully certified members in 21 disciplines and more than 120 occupations across a multitude of industries. 

Media Contact:
Michele Penz, Calico Communications for ASET 


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