28 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
shutdown sparks
innovation at
ISE schools
Faculty, students quickly adjust to remote
learning, other challenges
By Keith Albertson
shutdown sparks
innovation at
ISE schools
Faculty, students quickly adjust to remote
learning, other challenges
By Keith Albertson
September 2020 | ISE Magazine 29
As COVID-19 spread worldwide in early March,
businesses shuttered, public places emptied and
schools closed for weeks to enforce physical distanc-
ing restrictions.
The impact was keenly felt by colleges and uni-
versities, where officials were quickly thrust into
crisis mode. In mere days, they had to close campuses and adjust
to online learning platforms while addressing the various needs
of students and faculty.
Mary Besterfield-Sacre was among those caught in the tem-
pest. As University of Pittsburgh students left for spring break,
officials at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering began plan-
ning how to react to the virus’ approach. By midweek, the de-
cision was made to close the campus before students returned.
By that time, what I’d already started doing was rallying the
troops,” Besterfield-Sacre, a professor of industrial engineer-
ing and associate dean for academic affairs, told ISE. “We said,
‘This is what weve got to do – we’ve got to get the entire
school up and running in a remote mode.’ ... The goal was to
do the best we could for the last five weeks, and get over the
nish line.
In the blink of an eye, instructors scrambled to adopt remote
teaching techniques while students tried to complete research
projects and fulll summer internships and postgraduate job
options. Yet amid the chaos, industrial and systems engineer-
ing faculty devised solutions to deliver class material online and
students found innovative ways to stay connected and maintain
their academic standing. In doing so, everyone learned what
worked and what didnt, and sought to improve remote learn-
ing procedures as fall semester approached.
Caring for students’ needs from afar
One early challenge universities faced was getting students
home safely. Kim LaScola Needy, dean of the graduate school
and international education at the University of Arkansas, first
focused on those studying abroad.
As the pandemic began to spread in Europe and China, our
unit was called in to action to begin to figure out how to bring
these students back, what sequence to bring them back, where
to bring them back to,” she said in a recent episode of Problem
Solved: The IISE Podcast (podcast.iise.org). “There were certainly
a lot of logistics associated with this kind of task, as well as
guring out once they returned back to the U.S. how we were
going to schedule them to complete their spring course load.
As instructors moved classes online, some students found
learning at home to be difficult, particularly those living where
internet connections were unreliable or in less-than-ideal en-
“Many of our students at the undergrad and graduate levels
are also parents,” said Needy. “So when things started shutting
down in industry and on the campus and everybody started to
go home, there was an additional challenge to their education.
They had to also be helping younger children or siblings with
their learning environments and figure out how to get their
studies done with full course loads while also having these add-
ed responsibilities, which added significant pressure and stress.
“Understanding that students had to go through these extra
steps is something faculty have to be recognizing,” Arkansas
ISE professor Manuel D. Rossetti said on the podcast. “A stu-
dent told me they had to drive to campus and sit on the grounds
to access Wi-Fi to take their test. ... A young lady told me she
had to share her laptop with three or four other siblings who
were in elementary school because that’s the only device they
had in their house. We dont really deal with that on a regular
basis so we have to make exceptions and understand students
are stressed in these conditions.
The first step in remote learning was ensuring everyone had
proper devices for online platforms. After surveying student
needs, Besterfield-Sacre’s team found that many didnt have
laptop or desktop computers.
Believe it or not, we had students, because of their situation,
who didnt have laptops because their internet was 100% their
phones,” she said. “So we got them in front of places to get ac-
cess to hardware/software they might need.
That effort included getting faculty the equipment needed in
the transition to remote classes.
“We had an entire week to get our faculty trained on getting
everything they needed up and running,” Besterfield-Sacre
said. “We were running nonstop showing people how to do
things. We sent out surveys so we knew exactly who needed
help. ... We immediately ran out and ordered what we could
and we ‘stole’ what we could and we made sure everybody had
in hand what they needed.
Amid these challenges, school officials sought to monitor
everyones mental health and provide help where needed by
conducting regular check-ins.
‘Our students have learned to be better
time managers, more flexible and certainly
more adaptable. Those are great life skills
and great skills to prepare them for an
evolving workplace.
Kim LaScola Needy, an IISE Fellow, former IISE president
and professor of industrial engineering and dean of the Graduate
School and International Education at the University of Arkansas
30 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Pandemic shutdown sparks innovation at ISE schools
“We sent an email to students and basically said, ‘How are
you doing,’” Besterfield-Sacre said. “We knew when you flip
this so fast on people that the students might not really have
been aware of how crazy this was. So we had a lot of students
say, ‘I’m not doing good.’ They had this pattern and for many
of them it was gone, their structure for learning was missing.
“We were trying to reach out to students, and if they said,
‘I need someone to call me,’ we called them. Were not social
workers; if we could triage what they needed, we got them in
front of who they needed to be in front of.
At Virginia Techs Grado School of Engineering, faculty and
advisers increased their office hours and found different ways to
help students address any hardships.
“I know many of our students really struggled with feeling
disconnected from their peers and their faculty,” Eileen Van
Aken, ISE department head, said on Problem Solved. “So we
worked with our advisers, with our undergraduate students and
our advisers we have for graduate students to really reach out
to them to let them know that we’re thinking about them, ask
‘what questions do you have?’ and provide them encourage-
Remote learning a sudden challenge
Meanwhile, faculty members had to adjust their teaching
methods with minimal time to prepare. When the switch
was flipped to online learning, some instructors adapted easily
while others faced a steep learning curve. For some, going fully
digital was outside of their comfort zones.
Some are really good at using the learning management
systems we have in place so their transition was a little simpler.
They already use online delivery mechanisms, even in face-to-
face class, so their transition was easier, and I’m one of those,
Rossetti said. “There are other faculty who still write on the
board and still deliver in the old way, and that transition was
more difficult for them because everybody had to go online.
“Many of our faculty had never taught online before,” Van
Aken said. “We tried to provide everybody with the tools and
the guidance they would need.
Rossetti said another hurdle was adapting to online testing
procedures, “a very difficult, challenging effort to make that
work.” Some grading changes were welcomed, including a
pass-fail option for spring courses.
“I thought the idea might be controversial, but I was sur-
prised and happy the faculty accepted it and embraced it,” Ros-
setti said. “I was surprised at the number of students who had
to take that option. We had to be flexible in how we do things,
in the delivery of classes but also in how we treat the students.
Such agile thinking was vital as everyone adjusted to a new
world of learning.
“I always tell people ‘Theres no one way to do this; you as
a faculty member and a teacher have your own mojo for how
you teach. If you try to do something that’s very much not your
nature, you will struggle,’” Besterfield-Sacre said. “So when it
came to going remote in the spring, it was ‘What do we do to
take what you have going on right now and put it in a remote
environment?’ That was our goal.
To improve remote techniques, Pitt-Swanson held a sum-
mer “boot camp” for instructors to help them rene methods
of teaching and communicating. After adapting in a mad rush
in the spring, the idea is to apply continuous improvement to
the processes.
The goal now is not just take what you have and go re-
mote; that was the emergency situation,” Besterfield-Sacre
said. “Now is when we have to demonstrate we are excellent in
remote teaching. It’s a very different goal.
At Virginia Tech, Van Aken said class material and lectures
were recorded and posted, allowing access to students living
in far-off time zones unable to attend live. In some cases, in-
structors targeted class projects based on the pandemic. Such
assignments at Virginia Tech included working with the state
health department and creating inventory and supply chain
The breadth of skills and tools that we have as industrial
and systems engineers can really apply to all of the things were
seeing with the pandemic and many other global challenges,
Van Aken said. “Students see in different courses how they can
bring valuable perspective and tools and skills to some of these
very complex problems.
Halting of research projects sparks solutions
Another challenge was providing hands-on learning experi-
ences and research opportunities normally conducted in labo-
ratories, in groups or at conferences. Transferring such instruc-
tion to virtual settings required more innovation.
The pandemic threw a wrench into many of the students
‘We were trying to reach out to students
and if they said, “I need someone to call
me, we called them. We’re not social
workers; if we could triage what they
needed, we got them in front of who they
needed to be in front of.
Mary Besterfield-Sacre, associate dean for
Academic Affairs and professor of industrial engineering
at the University of Pittsburgh and an IISE member
September 2020 | ISE Magazine 31
being able to continue with research. As campus closed down,
research labs closed down and students lost access to their com-
plete research,” Needy said. “Graduate students lost an oppor-
tunity to present their research, to network with other profes-
sionals or to network for job opportunities.
“Everyone was scrambling on how to deliver that laboratory
experience,” Rossetti said. “We had a robotics class that had
projects where students had to get together and make things
and have them move around. They had to change that and go
to a more virtual delivery or change the project requirements
and do something different because it wasnt feasible to do it
the other way.
Yet ISE students and instructors found ways to complete
many projects and learned from the experience.
“In our capstone design course, collaborating with industry
and doing senior design, there were some hiccups there, but
most of that is done virtually now anyway as companies also
work virtually,” Rossetti said. “Students got a good dose of
how industry has to do that, and that was actually a good learn-
ing experience for them because they had to act in the same
way industry was forced to act at that time. So there are some
positive aspects to that.
An example at Virginia Tech was from a class on work physi-
ology and a project involving exertion loads, where the instruc-
tor devised a way for students to fill milk jugs with water and
complete the activities at home.
“I was impressed with how creative our faculty were in try-
ing to adjust some of the courses that had some lab component
or in-class activities or exercises,” Van Aken said. “There were
some examples in which they had to modify and adjust their
The pandemic shutdown created a dilemma for undergraduate
students involved in senior design team projects at Georgia Tech’s
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering.
The projects are a graduation requirement in which teams partner
with businesses to solve specific problems (see an example in the
July 2019 Case Study, link.iise.org/isejuly2019_casestudy). The
work involves up to 15 hours a week and multiple on-site visits.
But with the campus and businesses shuttered, 218 students in 30
groups had to improvise ways to work and communicate.
“We were concerned about not being able to communicate as
effectively as we had been during our in-person meetings,” said
senior Alice Pagoto, an IISE member. “We had spent many hours
working in close collaboration on the most important parts of our
project, and we didn’t know if we could continue the same quality
over video calls.”
Pagoto was one of seven students working with Kinaxis, a supply
chain management software company in Canada. The team held
virtual weekly calls with their contacts at Kinaxis working to optimize
production of plasma-derived medical products.
“We made sure to communicate our expectations for each other
at the beginning of every meeting, and this kept us on track for the
project schedule,” Pagoto said. “Despite being in three different time
zones, we were able to maintain the same meeting schedule and
times as we had on campus.”
Though unable to visit the company in person, the team
completed the project successfully and earned a share of first-place
honors in the Best of Senior Design competition, also held virtually.
“The ability to present technical topics practically and concisely
was vital to being successful in the senior design project,” Pagoto
said. “It became even more critical to develop this skill after we went
virtual, as we still had to convey the complexities of our project and
solution with precision in both faculty and client presentations.”
ISE professor Dima Nazzal, an IISE member and director of
professional practice and senior design coordinator, was impressed
with how all of the teams performed.
“What I saw was how prepared they were to make this transition,”
she wrote on the school website. “Rather than being diminished due
to a dramatic change of events, the work product was as good as any
other capstone group I’ve led – and in some ways, better. These ISyE
students were able to deliver high-quality work product because of
their ingenuity and training.
“As COVID-19 eventually recedes, these newfound efficiencies
stand to make these students – and us – more productive than
before, while affording more time to engage in activities key to
quality of life. The tools were already there. This pandemic is making
us all, students and faculty, better prepared, more empathetic and
more flexible.”
Members of the Georgia Tech senior design team working
with Kinaxis meet remotely to plan and communicate about
their project. Despite the campus shutdown, the team
earned a share of top honors in the annual senior design
Senior design teams find remote solutions
Photo courtesy of Alice Pagoto
32 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Pandemic shutdown sparks innovation at ISE schools
course but still give the best educational experience they could
to students.
Grado also moved its capstone senior design course projects
online, along with its annual conference and symposium. But
even with an undertaking involving presentations from 47
teams, Van Aken said it came off flawlessly and earned greater
participation from company sponsors.
At Pitt-Swanson, students were able to pick up project mate-
rials to work on at home or have items shipped to them.
“We kitted everything and shipped it to their homes,
Besterfield-Sacre said. “We changed instructions: Build it on
your own, work with your team ... then take best of the best
and build the best prototype.
Lost opportunities for interns, job seekers
The shutdown of schools and businesses impacted students
summer internships and graduates’ full-time jobs. Many posi-
tions disappeared as companies scrambled to work remotely.
“For those students who hadnt secured jobs yet, everything
just slowed down and those opportunities and interviews be-
came more sparse,” Needy said.
A lot of students were in limbo,” Rossetti said. “I was con-
tacted by many students who said, `Hey do you have any jobs
on campus for your research mission?’ because they were un-
able to get the internships they were planning on doing. I need-
ed some students for research this summer, and we’re flexible in
how we can do that.
Pittsburgh students suffered a loss of a summer co-op pro-
gram, which includes up to 50% of engineering students and
offers course credit. School ofcials reached out to companies
in an effort to keep students connected with those projects.
For Swansons summer undergraduate research institute that
funds work for some 80 students, faculty devised remote proj-
ects to replace those that needed to be conducted in labs and
offered course credit for much of the work done during senior
design projects.
“We did a lot of flip-flopping for that where we could,
Besterfield-Sacre said. “We didnt help everybody like we’d
like to, but for the ones who said, ‘Hey, can you do something
for me?’ we bent over backward to make it work.
Virginia Tech officials identied all students who lost work
opportunities, then collaborated with their advisory board and
alumni groups to help find jobs or internships for anyone dis-
placed. They were able to connect about three-quarters of un-
dergraduates with such positions.
Being industrial engineers, we designed a systematic pro-
cess where we reached out to everybody and said, ‘Please let us
know your situation and if you had a job receded because of the
pandemic,’” Van Aken said. “We developed a database to track
those students so we could help them.
Experience gained for future decisions
Over the summer, school officials sought to take the lessons and
ingenuity learned from the spring and apply them to creating
safe learning environments in the fall.
For fall semester, Virginia Tech planned a combination of
remote, in-person and hybrid class settings based on the subject
matter and status of instructors.
“People and faculty staff are much more prepared and have
more experience to rely on and more tools people are aware
of,” Van Aken said. “It’s still a short amount of time, but we
do think there are some things in terms of online activities and
classes and components that can help us in the future going
forward. There will be more overall collective experience and
willingness to do some things that are virtual that might be
called for in certain situations.
Georgia Tech ISE faculty members Dima Nazzal and Lau-
ren Steimle, both IISE members, conducted research on the
protocols needed to create a safer environment for classes while
maintaining physical distancing. Their work showed that cre-
ating 6-foot distances between students and instructors would
translate to classroom seating capacities of 15% to 30% if such
distances were maintained, even with masks worn.
Based on their findings, Naz-
zal and Steimle recommended
students and instructors be giv-
en the option for online classes
to minimize their risk and
maintain reasonable class sizes.
That would include alternating
between remote and in-person
But whatever decisions are
made, flexibility remained key.
One thing I’ve tried to
practice is to not be forced into
making a decision before I need
‘Students had to learn to collaborate re-
motely with each other, which is important
in global workforce development. So it was
turned into a positive thing.
Manuel D. Rossetti, professor and Director of the
Data Science Program for the College of Engineering,
Walton College of Business and Fulbright College of Arts &
Sciences at the University of Arkansas and an IISE Fellow.
Dima Nazzal is director of
professional practice and
senior design coordinator
at Georgia Tech and an
IISE member.
September 2020 | ISE Magazine 33
to because the situation is so fluid,” Needy said. “We can make
decisions but the reality is, every day and every week, given the
fluidity of the situation and spread of the virus, that may not be
the best decision we make today for tomorrow. So it behooves
us to try and delay making those decisions until the latest pos-
sible point so the decision sticks.
Some positive takeaways from crisis
Despite many difficulties, educators found that the problem-
solving challenges posed by the pandemic tested faculty and
students in new ways and led to some positive lessons.
Our students have learned to be better time managers, more
flexible and certainly more adaptable,” Needy said. “Those are
great life skills and great skills to prepare them for an evolving
Students had to learn to collaborate remotely with each
other, which is important in global workforce development,
Rossetti said. “So it was turned into a positive thing. We still
had a successful capstone delivery, we had to do a virtual event
for that. ... Those changes had to happen, but there were some
positive sides to those changes.
“I think you can take advantage of some of the technology.
For example, I learned to use breakout sessions within my re-
mote course and they were very successful. There are positive
aspects you can leverage and look at it as an opportunity more
than a problem.
Van Aken cited Virginia Techs IISE student chapter for
its adjustment to using remote platforms for meetings, team-
building activities, professional development sessions and job
search assistance (see related article on Page 26).
They went out of their way to proactively plan some things
over the summer without marching orders from me as faculty
adviser,” she said. “I’ve been impressed with what they’ve done
to provide information and services to their student members
and to our larger department population.
Deborah Nightingale, a distinguished professor at the Uni-
versity of Central Florida, said online learning created lessons
to take forward.
“I wont say it was easy, but both faculty and students rose
to the challenge,” she said in an interview for a “Whats Your
Story?” profile on Page 64. “Some nice surprises emerged:
In one case, a faculty member got extensive feedback on how
much the students liked being able to replay the class lectures.
He now plans to reuse these recordings the next time he teaches
the class, using the class time to go over case studies, class dis-
cussions, etc.
Other faculty who had doubts about online learning be-
came believers. I believe there will be a sea change in higher
education. I think that traditional teaching methods will be
re-examined and that newer, more effective models will be
Besterfield-Sacre also saw positive results, particularly in
how both students and faculty worked to improve processes.
The thing I am thrilled about, and it came out with the
survey with our faculty members at the end of the semester,
they said, ‘I was always afraid to flip my classroom; then we go
through this COVID and I’m forced to flip my classroom, and
now I’m cool and groovy about learning how to do it better,’”
she said.
A lot of faculty were like, ‘It’s too much work. I just couldnt
do this.’ But now because they were forced to do it on the quick
y, they’re like, ‘OK, we can do this. I can make my class so
much better in this environment,’ and actually have better ac-
tive learning in the long run.
Keith Albertson is managing editor of ISE magazine. Contact him at
‘The breadth of skills and tools that we
have as industrial and systems engineers
can really apply to all of the things we’re
seeing with the pandemic and many other
global challenges. Students see in differ-
ent courses how they can bring valuable
perspective and tools and skills to some of
these very complex problems.
Eileen Van Aken, IISE Fellow and professor and
head of the industrial and systems engineering department at
Virginia Tech’s Grado School of Engineering