Universities Face Tough Decisions
When the pandemic hit the United States in February and March, nearly every college and university shifted to fully virtual learning. It was a challenging time for students and professors, but there was a certainty—all classes and exams were to be held online, and students were to return home if it was feasible.
As the fall 2020 semesters and quarters approached, there was little certainty. Even in June and July, many campuses had not committed to a stance on in-person or virtual learning, and whether they were bringing students back to campus. Now, most students are back on campus for a semi-virtual collegiate experience that significantly affects their courses and extracurriculars.
The Current Classroom and Campus Experience
Most universities across the U.S. are operating with a hybrid of in-person and virtual learning. Interestingly, many professors are given the freedom to decide if their course can be delivered online, or if they need to have students in the (socially distant) classroom. For most IPC student members who are commonly studying engineering or a similar discipline, lectures are virtual, and labs are conducted on campus in socially distant settings.
Nyshaun Greene, an electronics engineering technology student at the University of Maryland–Eastern Shore, must be on campus for labs. He says when driving to campus, “you have to go through a check-in station, where they take your temperature and ask what part of campus you are going to” in order to attend these classes.
In contrast, the California State University, University of California, and California Community College public school systems are entirely virtual. IPC has six student chapters that operate within these systems: Cal Poly–Pomona, CSU–Sacramento, UCLA, UCSD, UC-Irvine, and American River College. Kris Moyer, a professor at CSU–Sacramento and the IPC student chapter advisor, grapples with the best method to teach his PCB design fundamentals course while being restricted to a fully virtual curriculum.
Classes remaining fully virtual is one challenge, but it is not the only challenge facing students. Arnulfo “Nufito” Silva, president at the NC State IPC student chapter, shares how his campus experience “was much more limited as in-person events were practically non-existent. I personally did not leave my apartment aside from getting groceries or picking up any packages from the front desk. When I did go out, the difference in student population outside was astounding.”
Arnulfo moved into his on-campus residence for fall classes, but due to a cluster of COVID-19 cases in his residence hall, he was required to move out on short notice briefly after moving in. Taking classes at colleges and universities in 2020 looks significantly different, but the entire collegiate experience for IPC student members and all students are greatly impacted.
The Challenge of Extracurricular Programming
The IPC Student Chapter Program has four pillars: scholarships, education, industry connections, and projects. Some of these core benefits can be delivered virtually through online technical education courses, access to select IPC standards documents, webinars with IPC thought-leaders, and other online methods. While the IPC Education Foundation is doing all that they can to bring valuable virtual opportunities to its members, chapter leaders face difficulties with managing their organizations.
Nyshaun added, “When it comes to running an organization, it’s totally different. Having interest meetings or general body meetings weas easy—just set the day, time, and location, and you’re good to go. Now, you have to factor in if everyone is comfortable meeting in person. Also, you have to factor in how many people will potentially show up. Any meeting with 25+ people in attendance will have to be held in the school theater that we have to book ahead of time.” Chapter and interest meetings are generally being conducted virtually, but there is certainly a challenge with providing the same value of membership with increased safety protocols.
Online education courses, webinars, and Zoom meetings work well for many things, but much of IPC’s technologies are hands-on. The IPC Education Foundation will launch its first project/competition for student members this fall. IPCEF will manage the project and submission online, but students can work together locally to build and design if desired and allowed by local regulations. Before this, student chapters were encouraged to participate in existing projects and competitions on their campus. Others, like IPC’s new chapter at the University of New Orleans, already participated in a yearly robotics competition.
Michael Ceraso, chapter president, describes how he and his chapter faced the pandemic: “It was really shocking when the school shut down last semester. It happened very quickly. It was 1:44 p.m. on a Wednesday when they sent an email out that ‘today would be the last day of classes’ before we moved online for an ‘indefinite period.’ I could not pay attention in my 2:00 p.m. class, which ended up being my last in-person class that semester. My phone was buzzing with people asking me what was going to happen with the robotics competition.” Ultimately, the competition was canceled. The chapter hopes they can participate in 2020–2021, though their campus is currently entirely virtual.
A Positive Outlook and Optimism Moving Forward
Educational institutions, the IPC Education Foundation, and even the students themselves are taking creative approaches to give back in this time of need. At the University of New Orleans, Michael Ceraso comments on how his chapter pivoted to help the community of New Orleans: “After we stopped work on the robotics competition, we started looking for ways to help with the limited supply of PPE. We volunteered with a local maker space to assemble face shields that were delivered weekly to local hospitals. In a lot of ways, meeting the challenge of the pandemic was beneficial and gave us the opportunity to meet more people and give back to the city of New Orleans.” Ceraso and the other students at UNO show an excellent example of students rising to the occasion.
Students, often uplifting and full of optimism, have some positive perspectives looking forward. Arnulfo Silva of NC State believes that universities being “completely virtual may seem like a downside, but the opportunity to connect with people online who you may not normally reach out to in person is a great advantage. I think these times will have a significant impact on how we approach class learning and engagement in the future.”
Reflecting on the positives in a challenging situation can lift one’s spirits, and the IPC Education Foundation is fortunate to have hundreds of students across the U.S. to be inspired by.
Aaron Birney is the IPC education program manager.