COPING WITH COVID: Rachel Goldman on teaching MSE 250 remotely

A Q&A with Professor Rachel S. Goldman reveals the importance of building a robust remote learning community, including mailing hands-on activities to students' homes.
COPING WITH COVID: Rachel Goldman on teaching MSE 250 remotely

Professor Rachel Goldman and her spring MSE 250 class.

This spring Professor Rachel Goldman is teaching MSE 250, a class she has taught in-person for about the past four years. We recently talked with her about the class and what it's been like adapting the course to a remote-learning format.

What is the basic premise of MSE 250?

RSG: MSE 250 is an introductory course on the fundamentals of materials engineering. It is intended for students from both engineering and science majors, especially those would like to build the materials of the future!

How many students do you have and where are they from?

RSG: My class consists of 17 students from a variety of engineering disciplines - they live across the U.S., from New Jersey to Michigan to Texas to California, and one is from Kingston, Jamaica.

How is the remote class structured?

RSG: Since it is spring term, we have an accelerated schedule, meeting for two hours, four days per week, but we otherwise retain many features from the "live" class during the Fall or Winter term.  Prior to each class meeting, I upload to Canvas a "packet" of slides which contains key illustrations and diagrams, along with planned blank spaces. During our synchronous class meetings, each packet is transmitted via Zoom as I annotate them while speaking and fielding questions as they arise. After each class, the annotated slides and the Zoom cloud recording are made available on Canvas.

As the instructor, how have you approached teaching this class remotely? What are your personal
goals for 
the course?

RSG: My goal is to facilitate remote learning of materials science for all of our students. I feel a strong sense of obligation, especially in this moment, to provide a rigorous learning community which combines hands-on and visual learning in a remote environment. To achieve these goals, I have introduced a new "remote crystallography lab" -- using a home-delivered crystallography mini-kit for live visualization of atoms and planes in crystals.

What specific challenges have you had teaching remotely and how have you overcome them?

RSG: The greatest challenge in remote instruction is establishing a rapport with and between students. To facilitate rapport building, we take a few minutes break during each class meeting to share a fun fact such as "What city are you in?" or "What are you most looking forward to doing once the lockdown is over?" 

Please explain the crystallography kits and why you felt it was important to mail them to each student.

RSG: Often, the greatest challenge for materials science learners is visualization of atoms and planes in crystals. During on-campus learning, multiple crystal structure models are available for students to hold and rotate in their own hands, solidifying their understanding of atomic configurations.  During remote instruction, it is important provide each student with an at-home "hands-on" opportunity - namely a crystallography mini-kit for live visualization of atoms and planes in crystals.

What is the advantage of taking a remote course through U-M?

RSG: I always advise students to attend classes at U-M due to the irreplaceable opportunity for learning from peers and leading researchers. The same advice holds for a remote course!