Reimagining the Interactive Classroom How two professors in the department of aerospace and mechanical engineering built engaging freshman experiences during a global pandemic

The global pandemic has lasted so long, it's hard to remember what life before COVID-19 looked like. But Paul Ronney and Geoff Spedding, professors in the USC Viterbi Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering (AME), used blueprints of in person coursework to help redesign their introductory courses to help freshman engaged in hands-on engineering problems and learn troubleshooting, resilience and team work.


Paul Ronney, Chair of the Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, teaches AME's introductory course in mechanical engineering and graphics with the goal of giving students a broad overview of topics they will learn about more deeply during their undergraduate studies at Viterbi.

Ronney said, "The biggest challenge as a professor is merging the academic part [of the coursework] with the experiential part. We have to look at more than what's in the textbook--that's where the science ends and art begins."

In AME 101 (Introduction to Mechanical Engineering and Graphics), Ronney helped students do exactly that by using virtual lectures as a launch pad to group projects that required hands-on application of engineering principles. Students worked on two key projects in the fall 2020 semester, including Arduino robot cars, which use an open source programming platform to operate, and 3D printed bridge design.

Student groups got a taste for a real engineering job with their bridge projects. "Just like with a client, students had to go through all the steps, from client input to creation and testing of a model," Ronney said. Students used Solidworks, a computer-aided design program, to design their bridges, which were then 3D printed and tested in the AME teach laboratories. Students were able to test their own bridges (to the breaking point!) remotely using an apparatus and software specifically created for this year’s class by AME lab technicians. PHOTO/MICHAEL GRONER, YASHA HAQUE, KAITLYN KUMAR, BRYAN ROQUE AND LAUREN SCIULLO.

Students also worked on Arduino robot cars in groups and submitted projects in various categories, including freestyle. One team had their car "swim" a relay, while others had their cars perform choreographed dances.

See below for one team's Arduino robot car rendition of the Cha Cha Slide.


Ronney said among the aspects of the course that he changed because of the pandemic was recruiting a new teaching assistant, Cavalier, the horse standing behind him. Cavalier was a big hit with students and appeared in various ways in lectures, office hours and even on exams. PHOTO/KAITLYN KUMAR.
Geoff Spedding, professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, leads AME's Introductory to Aerospace Engineering course. His research focuses on aerodynamics of small flying devices, especially those where birds and bats coexist in engineering design space. Experiments in wind tunnels include those on simple fixed wings at USC .

AME 105 is meant to introduce freshman engineering students to aerospace engineering principles and concepts. Integrated into the curriculum was an interactive project: measurement of the flight performance of a glider.

Students added a touch of "humanity" to their experiments, employing special project assistants ranging from human family members to the family dog. PHOTO/Sarah Keough.

Spedding said the fun ways in which students incorporated their home life into their projects helped bring back the feeling of being in the classroom together, creating opportunities for camaraderie and cooperative learning.

Students were shipped materials and carried out the flight performance tests on their own, with guidance from Spedding.


Spedding's four-year-old son Kelvin--dubbed "Lord Kelvin"--became a staple of his teaching videos, which he said was part of a "flipped classroom model." Instead of broadcasting or pre-recording long lectures on Zoom, Spedding decided to make bite-sized instructional "nuggets" ranging in two to 10 minutes in length and focusing on one or two key concepts, further digested during interactive discussion sections. The students were able to apply these concepts in their final project and report.

Viterbi student Jared Ramirez drew this comedic representation of class last semester.

Because remote teaching and remote work in general can sometimes strip away the things we most look forward to as students and teachers--humanity--Spedding found new ways of introducing personality, creativity and fun into the COVID classroom experience. In fact, at the end of the course, he had "Lord Kelvin" invite students to draw images of Spedding and AME 105 in times of COVID. Students drew cartoons, portraits and even created videos--a great creative reprieve for all.

Viterbi student Joseph Fernandez drew a superhero depiction of Lord Kelvin, incorporating the flight-specific focus of AME 105's introductory coursework.

Despite challenges, Ronney said the lessons students learned were invaluable in understanding the modern world of engineering.

"COVID precipitated what was going to happen anyway. We were all headed toward this remote work / remote collaboration environment. It was accelerated by 10 years because of the global pandemic. Students learned to work with a team of people remotely and they did so really well.""