Covid-19 Pandemic Enables Remote Laboratory Learning

This guest post was written by Jack Germaine. He is a Research Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Tufts University.

Universities were quick to adapt to the norms of social distancing. Various modes of remote delivery were implemented to allow students to continue educational progress. Laboratory subjects are more challenging to implement remotely due to the need to connect the information being collected with the actual equipment. However, remote learning provides an opportunity to engage with individuals without the constraints of time or location.

Professor Germaine of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Tufts University made good use of this opportunity. His graduate level, laboratory-based course was offered to non-degree candidates in the fall of 2020 through the “Courses at Tufts” professional development program. A number of laboratory specialists from around the US (plus one from Southern Asia) participated in the course.

The course is a mix of 36 hours of lectures along with 9 virtual laboratories. The topics cover everything from index tests through triaxial testing. The course also includes a significant amount of instrumentation technology and automation. The lectures focus on the theories and reasons behind the equipment designs as well as the procedural choices. The variability of geotechnical materials poses unique challenges which must be factored into testing choices. Understanding all this background leads to informed decisions during the testing operation. My goal is to improve the quality of test results while at the same time increasing the efficiency.

The laboratory sessions are all tape recorded in advance with Germaine performing the specific procedures, discussing equipment details, and illustrating the differences in material behavior. Live laboratory sessions are conducted to provide discussion time and talk through the assignments. Archival data sets are consistent with the equipment used to make the measurements. The students then perform the calculations and submit a technical report.

After almost 40 years of teaching experience, I found this a challenging and rewarding experience. There is no doubt that I felt the added pressure of speaking to individuals who are experts in many aspects of the curriculum. However, having people in the class with years of practical experience, added an important dimension to the discussions. Small details can have an enormous impact on test results, or the effort required in performing a test. Sharing this information benefits everyone.

While I hope we are back to in-person learning next year, I am totally in favor of making this a hybrid subject in order to reach the wider audience.

For more information about this article, please contact Jack Germaine.