CEE faculty showcasing flexibility
Professors around the world are navigating the uncharted territory of teaching in the midst of a pandemic. Here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, our Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering faculty are not just restructuring their curriculum and syllabi, they’re finding ways to re-invigorate students’ learning all while ensuring safety.
Let’s take a glimpse behind the scenes in a faculty Q&A. This is the second half of a two-part series featuring CEE faculty and students’ Fall 2020 experiences. Check out the students’ efforts here.
Without further ado . . .
Imad Al-Qadi, Illinois Center for Transportation director and Bliss Professor of Engineering
Q: How have you seen your crew react in the pandemic?
A: “This crisis allows our staff and students to step up and shine,” Al-Qadi said. “Staff converted to an online setting in less than 48 hours without any glitches.”
“Students found innovative solutions to manage their time and better plan their research,” he added. “The uncertainties allow them to rise up to the ongoing challenge.”
Q: How are faculty and students doing during this unique learning environment?
A: “Faculty and students in our department have rose to the challenge and have adopted to the best they can,” Al-Qadi said. “I believe our department has done very well, especially (now) that many faculty have been teaching online.”
“I teach (CEE) 406: Pavement Design Class, which has 40 students,” he added. “Sixteen attended in-person at the beginning of the semester, and the number dropped to seven now.”
“Although in-person and live interaction may not be replaced,” Al-Qadi added, “faculty have been doing a great job to ensure that our students are getting the best education and their learning process and quality have not been compromised.”
Q: What’s your advice for making it through this semester?
A: “For the students, be transparent,” Al-Qadi said. “If you have any concern, talk to the instructor.”
“For the faculty, we all need to be patient, especially when students are in front of a computer all day in a small room that (he or she) may share with another person,” he added.
“For students and faculty, our goal is the same, to deliver and get the best education under any circumstances and focus on producing the civil engineering leaders of the future.”
John Popovics, CEE associate head, director of undergraduate studies and professor
Q: Has COVID-19 made you prep for this semester differently than others?
A: “Definitely yes,” he said. “I spent significant time over the summer preparing for my fall class.”
Q: How are fellow faculty and students doing in tackling such a challenging semester?
A: “So far, the faculty and students are doing well all things considered.”
Q: What’s your advice for making it through Fall 2020?
A: “Be flexible and accommodating.”
Issam Qamhia, CEE postdoctoral research associate
Q: How are you adjusting to such a unique semester?
A: “At the beginning, it was hard to readjust to working from home, especially (since) I am used to diversify(ing) my work location(s),” he said. “Once I adjusted to working from home, I was able to productively use my time to write papers and proposals until we were back to working from the lab in June and had to handle delayed experimental research work as well.”
Q: What’s your takeaway from this experience?
A: “Overall, it was not a bad experience,” he said, “especially (since) the complete lockdown lasted only two months.”
“(I) learned to appreciate smaller things in life that were normally discarded with the fast pace of our days,” Qamhia added. “(I) got closer to some people in my smaller circle of contacts and had the chance to contact and socialize online with many friends, family members and former colleagues that I didn’t talk to in a while.”
Q: What advice would you lend to others?
A: “My advice to everyone is to try to appreciate what we currently have,” he said. “Make the best of these days and focus on the positive.”
“What we are experiencing now is temporary and will hopefully be (a) memory soon,” Qamhia added.
Jeff Roesler, associate head for Graduate Affairs and CEE professor
Q: How did you gear up for this semester?
A: “I personally began planning for the freshman (course), CEE 198: Project-based Intro to CEE, during the summer,” he said.
“We knew we would (have) students remote — in (the) U.S. and around the world — and in person,” Roesler added. “We wanted this class (to) still be highly interactive, still have adventuresome field trips, (be) team-project oriented and continue with mentoring our freshman toward what civil and environmental engineers do and help them imagine what they will do in the future.”
Q: How have faculty been reframing their courses in light of the pandemic?
A: “Faculty have embraced the challenge whether it is (a) fully online, in-person only or hybrid model,” Roesler said.
“In my CEE 198 class, I teach to a class of 30 students in person while this lecture is concurrently livestreamed through Echo360 to another class downstairs of 40 students,” he added. “Finally, we are connected live with Zoom to the 30 students remotely joining throughout the world, (which is a) class of about 100 students total.”
Q: What’s your words of wisdom for navigating this semester?
A: “Be patient with the new format and changes that are being implemented,” Roesler said. “Somethings will work well and others will need adjustments, but we are all committed to maximize student learning in this current environment the best we can.”
“Engineers must continually adapt their thinking and tools to the changing needs of the world,” he added, “so this unfortunate pandemic has also enabled a lot of innovation to penetrate rapidly into higher education and make both professors and students more comfortable with the hybrid environment.”
Al Valocchi, CEE interim head and professor
Q: What’s been the hardest part of this semester?
A: “This fall semester is bringing many challenges for me and all CEE faculty as we aim for excellence in our research and teaching,” Valocchi said. “My current graduate students and I made the transition to fully remote meetings over the summer. Since our research is primarily computational, we are fortunate that we do not need access to laboratory facilities.”
Q: What are some of the challenges you’re facing in teaching?
A: “I teach CEE 457: Groundwater,” Valocchi said. “Fortunately, I had been teaching this class for remote asynchronous students for close to 15 years.”
“However, there are some big differences and challenges this semester,” he added. “I have three types of students, (including) in-person students sitting socially distanced apart in room 2311 (of) Newmark; remote synchronous students, who will connect through Zoom; and remote asynchronous students who will view the recorded lectures and classroom discussions.”
“The main issues I am working on are the first two groups,” Valocchi said. “How do I foster interactions with the in-person students during the lecture, and how do I engage the remote synchronous students?”
“I worked this summer with my TA (teaching assistant) to develop some strategies,” he added,” but to be honest, I am still working on these issues.”
Q: How have you seen your staff step up in big ways during this unique time?
A: “Our campus, college and department worked very hard this summer to prepare for instruction this semester,” Valocchi said. “I am overwhelmed by the response of our faculty, and it is heartening to see them work so hard to ensure the students have a rich educational experience.”
Q: What’s your advice to faculty and students for handling this semester?
A: “Well, I would say be flexible, have realistic expectations, and be willing to learn from mistakes and adapt and adjust,” Valocchi said. “Also use this unusual semester as an opportunity to think out of the box and take some risks in your teaching and research.”
“Keep a positive attitude,” he added, “and focus on what you can control. Above all — stay safe and follow all the rules and regulations.”