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Assessing the Effectiveness of a Flex Model for a Sustainability Course in the COVID-19 Learning Environment

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Environmental Engineering Division Technical Session 3: Teaching Environmental Engineering in the COVID-19 Era

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Environmental Engineering

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David V.P. Sanchez University of Pittsburgh Orcid 16x16

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David Sanchez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering and the Assistant Director for the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation. He is the PI for Sustainable Design Labs where research is focused on fusing analytical chemistry, sustainability design principles and data analytics to address Water and Sustainability grand challenges.

Dr. Sanchez directs the Sustainability education programs which include the Sustainability Certificate and the Master’s in Sustainable Engineering program. He is an officer at the national and regional level for the American Society of Engineering Education for the Environmental Division and the North Central Section respectively.

He teaches core Sustainability courses, labs and design courses in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship program, the First-Year Engineering program, and the Swanson School Study Abroad programs.

He directs the Makerspace Bootcamp, Pitt Hydroponics and a variety of the Mascaro Center’s Sustainability Community Engagement programs including the Teach the Teacher program, Lincoln Elementary STEAM days, and Constellation Energy Inventor Labs, helping to engage thousands of students each year.

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Tony Lee Kerzmann University of Pittsburgh Orcid 16x16

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Dr. Tony Kerzmann’s higher education background began with a Bachelor of Arts in Physics from Duquesne University, as well as a Bachelor’s, Master’s, and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh. After graduation, Dr. Kerzmann began his career as an assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering at Robert Morris University which afforded him the opportunity to research, teach, and advise in numerous engineering roles. He served as the mechanical coordinator for the RMU Engineering Department for six years, and was the Director of Outreach for the Research and Outreach Center in the School of Engineering, Mathematics and Science. In 2019, Dr. Kerzmann joined the Mechanical Engineering and Material Science (MEMS) department at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the advising coordinator and associate professor in the MEMS department, where he positively engages with numerous mechanical engineering advisees, teaches courses in mechanical engineering and sustainability, and conducts research in energy systems.

Throughout his career, Dr. Kerzmann has advised over eighty student projects, some of which have won regional and international awards. A recent project team won the Utility of Tomorrow competition, outperforming fifty-five international teams to bring home one of only five prizes. Additionally, he has developed and taught fourteen different courses, many of which were in the areas of energy, sustainability, thermodynamics, dynamics and heat transfer. He has always made an effort to incorporate experiential learning into the classroom through the use of demonstrations, guest speakers, student projects and site visits. Dr. Kerzmann is a firm believer that all students learn in their own unique way. In an effort to reach all students, he has consistently deployed a host of teaching strategies into his classes, including videos, example problems, quizzes, hands-on laboratories, demonstrations, and group work. Dr. Kerzmann is enthusiastic in the continued pursuit of his educational goals, research endeavors, and engagement of mechanical engineering students.

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Claire P. Chouinard University of Pittsburgh

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Gregg P. Kotchey University of Pittsburgh

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The COVID-19 global pandemic has suspended conventional operations in engineering education and forced changes that will inform our practice for years to come. The need for engineering educators to adapt course designs in short time frames amidst the compounding uncertainty of safety protocols, operational postures, and accreditation requirements is unprecedented and still evolving. As teachers update classroom technology, content, rubrics instructional schemes and cohort assignments there is much uncertainty about how this will affect our students. This paper attempts to critically evaluate the effect of new teaching and course delivery models on student experiences, preferences, learning and course strengths within a Sustainability course.

Using principles from HyFlex literature, our R1 university created a flexible instructional model. This Flex-Model is designed to accommodate in-person and remote instruction for professors and students alike. Instructors were encouraged to flexibly incorporate face-to-face class meetings with opportunities for remote students to participate using video conferencing technology (i.e. blended course delivery). Instructors were asked to leverage synchronous online activities, and asynchronous online content as appropriate to the size of their class, availability of suitable classroom space, content, and course structure (e.g., lecture-based, discussion, recitation, project-based, lab, studio) while considering the location of the students and access to on-campus resources.

This research strives to evaluate the effectiveness of the Flex-Model through the lens of the student experience in a Sustainability course due to its interdisciplinary nature and that all 6 of our engineering departments were represented within the class population. The course is a topics course requiring weekly readings, discussions, assignments, and quizzes. The class roster consisted of 92 students (10 graduate students) with two of the co-authors serving as instructors.

Data from student surveys conducted before, and during the Fall 2020 semester were analyzed. Survey questions included both qualitative and quantitative prompts.


Open reflections on student learning, general experience, challenges and percieved advantages


- Comparative Flex-Model ratings of student experience, preferences, and course strengths relative to conventional in-person courses

- Likert scale ratings of important pedagogical elements of Flex-Model course design and course delivery relative to conventional in-person courses (e.g. lectures, format, discussions, in-class, content organization, communication, rapport)

Along with instructor observations, the data analysis presented some revealing conclusions from the student perspective. Prior to the semester, student responses were highly focused on anxiety about safety and uncertainty about the level of online engagement in the class experience. Survey results during the semester indicated that while the online content, virtual classes, organization, and faculty efforts were rated very positively, there remains a very strong preference for in-person experiences that were inadequately reproduced virtually. Among the student comments, there was a strong correlation to the lack of personal engagement, increased distractions, decreased motivation, hesitancy to engage in class discussions and the lesser ability to develop rapport with peers and professors.

Sanchez, D. V., & Kerzmann, T. L., & Chouinard, C. P., & Kotchey, G. P. (2021, July), Assessing the Effectiveness of a Flex Model for a Sustainability Course in the COVID-19 Learning Environment Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--36712

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