The Fall 2020 semester is off and running, and it is unlike any we have experienced. No matter where your student is located, they are faced with balancing school and work/life responsibilities in a world upended by a global pandemic and its economic impacts, as well as a national moment of reckoning over racial injustice. This is surely adding stress to what is normally a challenging, yet exciting time of year.
As a parent of a college student myself (and another child applying to college this fall), I understand that you all are concerned for your student’s health, well-being, and academic success. I hope you share my optimism that the university will succeed in managing the virus on campus—so far the data is very encouraging—and everyone will be back together on campus in the spring.
The fall semester will be bumpy. As you may be aware, there were issues with the stability of our learning management system during the first week of classes; campus IT worked rapidly to address these issues. Those on campus, or in the Amherst area, must stay in compliance with UMass safety guidelines. None of this is ideal, I get it. Your student needs your encouragement and strength more than ever. And we, at UMass Amherst, will be there to lend a supporting hand.
Let me take a moment to share with you some of what is happening in the College of Engineering with regard to curriculum & course delivery, student services, and our efforts to remain connected as a community.
Curriculum & Course Delivery
During a period over the summer of intensive planning for the fall semester, our faculty assessed the in-person risks against the essential learning objectives of each course before deciding if and how to deliver the curriculum remotely. As a result of these assessments, we are continuing to deliver a number of face-to-face labs and hands-on design classes on campus for our engineering students. These include capstone design and laboratory courses in MIE, ECE, and ChE; a CEE course related to the preservation of water resources; and an introductory course in biomedical laboratory techniques for BME and ChE. In these cases, faculty and lab personnel are working diligently to ensure that we safely deliver instruction. Protocols have been put in place to ensure workspaces are properly cleaned between use and social distancing can be observed whenever possible. Students and faculty have been provided with face shields to provide additional protection.
For those remote, our faculty and teaching assistants are still engaging synchronously with their students. This means each week there will be a live lecture(s) and/or problem sessions, and available office hours. We believe that connecting in real-time can reduce feelings of isolation, encourage camaraderie, and allow for questions and concerns to be immediately resolved. Your student will also benefit from “asynchronous” access to course materials and recorded lectures to explore or revisit at their chosen time and pace.
All courses have been adapted to focus on engagement, content delivery, and flexible assessments and exams. Engineering Computer Services is also providing remote access to specialized software, normally hosted locally in our college computer labs, for those who need it.
Virtual Student Services
Extra support is available to all engineering students. This includes tutoring, advising, social events, and workshops that address wellbeing. Our Office of Undergraduate Affairs has drop-in advising on Zoom, and our faculty advisors also have weekly office hours. Tutoring, which is available to all undergrads (you do not need to be struggling academically) includes facilitated review seminars; drop-in tutoring; and tutoring appointments for specific classes. We have also opened a few engineering common spaces, under appropriate protocols, to allow on-campus students to safely visit and study outside of the classroom.
In the College of Engineering, our career center staff is poised and ready to prepare students to find employment when they graduate. There are several career fairs this fall that will be of interest to engineering students, all of which will have expanded company participation as we are not limited by physical space. Hosted on Career Fair Plus, students can connect with employers via 1:1 video chat or in group drop-ins. In the era of COVID-19, an engineering degree will prove even more valuable to help solve the major challenges facing our world.
To kick things off, we are reimagining our traditional Welcome Tent as a virtual event scheduled throughout the day on September 17th. The tent is where our student societies, design teams, student services, and academic departments connect with new and returning students – and this year will be no different. Using the Hopin.to platform, the day will include live and recorded presentations as well as drop-in sessions. Since it’s virtual, you can join us too!
No matter where we are, our choices and actions impact others. On and off-campus, our community members must commit to creating a safe and respectful environment for all. This includes wearing our masks; being mindful of those around us; and showing kindness and understanding during this emotionally charged time.
As an inclusive and welcoming community, we must also strive to build bridges across our differences; listen to the voices of those with lived experience; and always see the humanity in each other. Strategies to do this include forums for dialogue, like our Allies for Equity discussion groups, and specific actions, such as our newly launched Dean’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Curriculum Challenge.
In closing, I echo the recent remarks of Chancellor Subbaswamy and our campus student leaders: Our students, staff and faculty are resilient, resourceful and committed. We will persevere. And as a campus community, we will succeed together and emerge from this even stronger.
Thank you for allowing us to be a part of your loved one’s educational journey.
Dean, College of Engineering
Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering
University of Massachusetts Amherst