Finding A Silver Lining Amid The Pandemic

Finding A Silver Lining Amid The Pandemic
ISE Magazine January 2021 Volume: 53 Number: 1
By Mike Sherwin

In January 2020, the spring term began at the University of Pittsburgh as most had for the previous 233 years. The temperature hovered around freezing with a high that day of 35 degrees F. Students, faculty and staff navigated Pitt’s campus with the renewed hope of a new semester and what was in store.

Freshmen approached the semester with a new sense of confidence with their first college semester behind them. Sophomores and juniors were one step closer to entering the “real world.” Graduating seniors entered their last term with nervousness, excitement and overall anticipation of what was next as they started to think about turning the page on their undergraduate academic careers.

Later that week, seniors in the Industrial Engineering Department settled into 227 Benedum Hall for the first meeting of IE1090, the Senior Design Capstone Course. Some students eagerly anticipated the start of the culminating course for the industrial engineering curriculum, while others dreaded the responsibility of such a class. When the nine project teams left the lecture hall that day, neither they nor anyone else could have anticipated what was about to happen in just a few short weeks from that cold January day.

The Senior Design Capstone Course is traditionally offered during the fall and spring semesters as the culminating course for undergraduate industrial engineering majors at Pittsburgh. Students apply industrial engineering methods acquired during their program of study to help client sponsors solve real industry problems. Historically, clients have represented healthcare, power generation, third-party logistics, medical devices, consumer products and other industries. Project topics have included process improvements, cost analysis, facility layout, human factors, supply chain and logistics, production planning, manufacturing modernization, quality, simulation and data analysis.

In addition to honing their technical skills during the course, students also gain valuable experience in project team dynamics, communication, leadership, technical writing and presenting. Besides being paired with an industry sponsor, student teams are matched with mentors from the faculty. Stu-dents are assessed based on meeting client goals, demonstrating and implementing industrial engineering methods, contributing to the team, working independently as a team and exhibiting good project management and organizational skills. Each project team is required to present status updates to the class twice during the semester and a final presentation. A comprehensive report is also required and provided to the client after the project is complete.

As the wave of the COVID-19 pandemic made its way across the United States, the University of Pittsburgh, like so many other schools, workplaces and businesses, made alternate operational plans. Senior Design Capstone Course students had to pivot to remote meetings with their teams as well as their clients. As part of adapting, the nine student teams were required to develop and document contingency plans. Further, all team meetings and client interfaces were moved to online platforms such as Zoom for the rest of the semester.  Final presentations for the course also moved to an online format.

Students did a great job adapting to the course’s new mode of delivery and mentors increased their involvement in supporting them. Client sponsors were very helpful in making the projects a success, especially considering the challenges and disruptions that many of their businesses faced due to the pandemic.

Given the circumstances, the course was a great success in the spring semester. It provided a tremendous learning experience for the students in communication, remote project management and teamwork. Also, the unique situation presented in the spring provided an opportunity to assess the current course construct, make improvements and prepare for the uncertainty of delivering the course in a pandemic environment. Feedback was gathered primarily from students and from a sample of faculty and clients and resulted in three primary areas to focus improvements:

  1. Include additional lectures to supplement student success.
  2. Provide a more detailed framework while still preserving the open experiential learning nature of the course.
  3. Identify projects that are feasible in an online environment.

Although the course is traditionally only offered in the spring and fall semesters, it was made available in summer to offer schedule flexibility for students and to provide an opportunity to implement the improvements in a pilot format. Nine students were enrolled in the course during the summer term and each were assigned to one of two client-sponsored projects with Perfection Pet Foods and GA Industries.

Perfection Pet Foods (PPF) is a pet food and baked biscuit manufacturer located in Visalia, California. Students worked with the PPF team to incorporate data analytics to identify root causes and recommend corrective actions within the manufacturing process.

GA Industries (GAI) produces specialty pressure and level control valves for the water and wastewater industries. Working with the GAI team in Mars, Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania Manufacturing Extension Partner, Catalyst Connection, students developed a standardized supply chain risk assessment process, implemented the process and recommended risk mitigation activities.

Students attended three lectures to assist with topics relevant to project management and worked in a remote team environment. Specifically, the sessions focused on project management tools, project operation and organization, leadership, teamwork and communication. Additionally, “pop-up” lectures were available for the specific needs of a project team. Pop-up sessions that occurred throughout the semester supported students in learning failure mode and effects analysis and structured query language.

The open-ended and independent nature of the course are keys to the students’ experience. The class’ main features were maintained while being supplemented by additional detailed frameworks, project templates and reminders. The course evolved from a more structured environment at the beginning of the semester to less structure and independence as time progressed.

The PPF and GAI projects fit well with the online format during the summer term and served as models for the future. In turn, as projects were identified for the fall term, the course was better prepared to understand the types of projects that would be feasible, given the uncertainty of being able to deliver the course face-to-face.

In addition to the online friendly projects, the summer term experiences identified several lessons learned as outlined be-low.

Additional framework and structure. Based on students’ continuous feedback, the supplemental frameworks and structure helped them succeed. It was also important to provide more guidance at the beginning of the semester and then allow teams to work more independently as the projects progressed. Consequently, the initial structure improved the student teams’ performance as well as their abilities to work independently.

Project management concepts. Although all students had previously been exposed to project management tools and concepts within the curriculum, some time had passed. The capstone course lectures served as a reminder of project management concepts, and the projects provided an opportunity to apply those concepts in real time.

Moving online has its benefits. Our goal is to support students in becoming successful contributors to society. Once the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, the lessons students learned when managing and participating in a project remotely will serve them for years to come. Students not only honed their technical acumen during these projects but also were able to develop better communication, meeting and planning skills. Instead of learning these skills in the first months of employment, they gained experience while working on their senior projects in an online environment.

Another benefit of moving the course online was expanding the reach of the client sponsors. Before the pandemic, clients were located in the greater Pittsburgh area primarily because of the need for regular face-to-face meetings. The summer term proved that successful project outcomes were achieved independently of clients and team location. More specifically, one client, PPF, was located in California and students in the class were located in Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Jersey.

Continuous feedback. The ability to have constant and consistent lines of communication and dialogue with students, clients and mentors was a primary key to the success of delivering the senior design capstone course in an online environment. Communication was balanced between regularly scheduled and ad hoc Zoom meetings, as well as via email. Feedback from students was acquired both formally through periodic polls during the semester and informally when the opportunity presented itself. In turn, the course was adjusted in real time and relevant feedback was implemented in a timely fashion.

We will strive to continuously improve the experience for all involved – students, clients and mentors – and look forward to integrating the lessons learned from the past few months during the fall semester. Student project teams looked to apply industrial engineering concepts to support the University of Pittsburgh’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and solve problems for clients in the healthcare, retail, laser marking, dining services and bicycle sharing industries. Topics included simulation, work sampling, forecasting, supply chain risk management, facility location, data visualization and process optimization.