James Zavislan: ‘Engineers run towards problems’

James Zavislan is an associate professor of optics and Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor.

 Here are his comments on preparing for the transition to online learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic:

James ZavislanSince January I have completed one Warner School course from Lisa Brown and am taking another Warner School course from Eric Frederickson on online education and designing online classes.   These online courses (EDE 470 and EDE 486) provide me experience on what it is like to be an on-line student and the necessary background to develop an online class.  I took these courses to prepare for transitioning my fall MS-level OPT 443 Foundations in Optical Systems to on-line.

With the decision to go online for the remainder of the semester, I now am using the material and the guidance from the Warner classes to structure the activities for all my classes.  The guidance markedly follows the product development process we use in senior design:  Understand your goals, identify methods to know that you have achieved your goal and then implement the activities needed to meet your goals.  

For all my classes I am now considering the primary learning objectives that remain.  Aware that the students will be remote and our engagement is online, I consider how I can assess the student’s progress in mastering these objectives and what learning activities I can use to support them.  It is a bit of an optimization problem; there are only a couple of specific program learning objectives, but there is a large possible set of assessments and instructional activities.  The optimization problem is to narrow the possible set of assessment and instructional activities into something that will work for all the students in the class for the remaining weeks of the semester.

The last several days have been spent brainstorming with colleagues on activities that support the students and their learning but can be put into place rapidly with available communication and educational tools.  It has been somewhat challenging, but our focus on prioritizing what is important and what is possible, has revealed some creative assessments and educational activities.

It is helpful to be an engineer, teaching science and engineering, since as “first-responders” to problems engineers run toward problems.  Any obstacle we encounter is just a constraint that needs consideration and these often help us to find optimum solutions.