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Dr. Yevgeniy Yesilevskiy, PhD

Lecturer of Mechanical Engineering at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science at Columbia University

Dr. Yesilevskiy teaches hands-on design focused classes for Mechanical Engineering, including the lab course for juniors and the machine design and senior design courses for seniors. Given the nature of the courses, the shift to remote teaching in Spring 2020 meant a complete rethinking of how the courses could work, as they couldn’t exist in ways they had previously. Dr. Yesilevskiy met the moment by innovating and redesigning course assignments, being reflective and responsive, and being flexible to support students’ learning. Read on to learn more about what Dr. Yesilevskiy did in his courses, what lessons and experiences he’s carrying forward, and the advice he has for other instructors at Columbia. To hear more about Dr. Yesilevskiy’s innovations, watch his 2021 Celebration of Teaching and Learning Symposium panel presentation.

Innovate and Redesign Course Assignments 

That first semester, when things got cut off in March, we were scrambling to give some semblance of an experience–this meant replacing everything that was physical with paper versions. That wasn’t very satisfying for the students or for us. Mechanical Engineering is a hands-on field, and students needed to do hands-on work. So that next year, with the summer to plan, we changed things around quite a bit.

I led the charge to introduce lab kits that got sent to every student (See Figure B). I spent the summer of 2020 working with my department chair to find money for it, and to his credit, and to the department’s credit, they were able to fund these kits. We also had to get approval from environmental health and safety to be able to send the kits and make sure there’d be no issues at home. Once the kits were funded and approved, it was a matter of reconfiguring the classes to determine we could possibly send them. 

Junior Lab 1 Course

For my Lab 1 class, I’d had plans to change it prior to the pandemic. I had received an Innovative Course Design grant from the Provost’s Office to modify it. The way the course had been run in the past included four large, pre-planned experiments. Because they were so large and complicated, students were following too many steps to fully grasp the underlying concepts. There were also so many students per team that no one student was getting to do everything in the lab. It was often 1-2 students doing things, and 3-4 watching at any given moment. The grant-funded revision was to change the class from that passive experience to something much more active. Specifically, what I did was make a  scaffolded learning experience in the class, where with each subsequent experiment students would get more freedom. In doing so, they would learn by the end how to make their own experiments. 

During that first year, choosing the kit components proved difficult because they had to be items that the students could feasibly use at home, maybe with a partner over Zoom, but still give them enough freedom to design an experiment from scratch at the end. The juniors also had many more safety restrictions; our seniors had been in-person for their junior year and received training in different machinery, but the juniors hadn’t, so we were much more constrained in what we could send. To facilitate their learning experience, we sent them smaller scale equipment; for example, when they were in person they used a program called LabView which is built into all our computers, Att home, though, they wouldn’t have that program. Instead, we sent them all arduinos, which are essentially little computers. Students could use those to take in data and make something meaningful.

For the student-designed experiment at the end, they used whatever we sent them (e.g., cardboard, clay, moldable clay, plastic) and combined that with whatever they had around to make interesting experiments. For example, one of my favorites was a pair of students who used Ugg boots as an insulator for a heat transfer experiment. Some used their phones as microphones, cameras–whatever they needed to get the particular data they needed. It went pretty smoothly all things considered. When I compared my my reviews for the previous version of the course to the new version of the course, students much preferred the new version, even though they were doing it at home. 

Machine Design and Senior Design Courses 

The seniors got much larger lab-kits since they had been trained to use more equipment and the classes required it. We sent them 3D printers, soldering irons, electronics, motors, tools, and safety equipment. Every student got a fire extinguisher, for example. From there, for the Machine Design and Senior Design courses, we transformed the classes to work with those kits.

For Machine Design, I created a project that required students to create these little robotic linkages to press arcade buttons as quickly as possible. I sent them plans to make an arcade button holder on their 3D printers at home. I built the project myself a couple weeks ahead of the students to make sure everything I was asking them to do was doable. And, they made it work. They were in teams still, and the teams either chose to have one central builder and have everyone else do the planning, or to everyone built their own version.

The Denior Design class, on the other hand, is totally open-ended. It’s a full-year, two-semester course; the first semester is all about these low fidelity, proof of concept prototypes, and the second semester is all about refinement and analysis. I don’t constrain them in which projects they choose, and students get very creative; there’s a wide range of projects. For this class, the 3D printers were particularly crucial because they allowed students to explore all different areas–even though it’s not the same as using more sophisticated materials in the shop, they were still able to get some design freedom.

Had the course not gone back in person the second semester, it would have been interesting to see the sort of compromises we would have had to make given the materials they had at home. But for this course, students did their planning for the first semester, with these kinds of lower-grade components. Then in the second semester, they were back in person and built more finalized versions, which worked out pretty well.

Be Reflective and Responsive 

The pandemic gave me a moment to not be on autopilot as much – not that I was less busy, but I had an opportunity to stop and wonder about what I was doing: Why was I giving in-person exams and losing a whole class period to that? What was the benefit to the students? Is there anything in the real world that simulates getting this timed, 40-minute exam, for the type of topics I cover? Why were my deadlines so rigid? Is it fair to extend a deadline for this one student and not everyone else? 

That’s all to say that, particularly during the pandemic, I was constantly reconfiguring assignments on the fly to accommodate whatever situation arose. That included switching to take-home exams. I saw the barriers of non-take home exams, and it seemed like an unnecessary burden on students. To have a camera watching them and al the eye-tracking software? It just wasn’t for me. Or for them. I still do take-home exams. While I can see a trend away from these, largely because of cheating concerns, I think the trade-off is still worth it. In the real world, students will very rarely be in a situation where someone says, “You have 40 minutes. Go go go!”

I also share my experience from the start of the pandemic in my teaching, to discuss a rapid design process–I share with students how I was able to lead the team that developed a design and created it quickly. At the start of the pandemic, that week or so when Columbia was shut down for everyone to reconfigure, I spent that week on a project with the hospitals to create a new type of face shield because you couldn’t get face shields anywhere. That week, others and I got into the makerspace and rapidly came up with a new design (See Figure A). I use that experience–including all we went through to get that design up and running, and all of the approvals needed from the hospitals–in my teaching. I use it to explain how a rapid design process goes. It helps to guide students along the path of here’s the first prototype to get something provable–now get to refining. It helps to remind them not to spend all of their time making the most refined version without having talked to anyone along the way to see if it’s going to work.

Be Flexible to Support Student Learning Needs 

That pause to reflect ultimately led me to be more flexible. I saw that every student was in a different home situation. They were in different physical health situations and different mental health situations; they had different constraints on when they could meet with others because of time zones or whatever else. With that flexibility, I tried to meet at whatever hours seemed to be required, particularly with the hands-on work that required I sit with a camera and show students how to do something.

I was also flexible with student teams, especially in my junior lab course. For our juniors, we typically have about a half-half split of 3-2 transfer and non- 3-2 transfer students. For the teams, knowing that students wouldn’t get to meet in person and knowing that those 3-2 students had never even seen the campus, I matched the first set of teams with 3-2 students with non- 3-2 students to let them get to know each other a bit. I then rotated teams with each experiment, again because most of them didn’t know each other, so they could get a chance to meet more people. I still match teams in that way; I still consistently reconfigure teams to help them acclimate to Columbia. By their senior year, I let them choose their teams.

I also tried to post materials in as many ways as I possibly could to accommodate as many different learning modalities as possible. Students’ preferences, so I wanted to give them options. Even before the pandemic, I would take notes on my tablet and post those as PDFs so students could re-read them. But then, I also had videos automatically post. I didn’t require students to watch me live on Zoom at that time, and with the videos, they could re-watch confusing portions. Or if they couldn’t make class, they could watch me later. And though it’s no longer required, I still record my lectures and post the videos. I do ask students to come in person if they can, but if for whatever reason they can’t (I’m pretty flexible with those reasons), they can hop on Zoom. Then, the recordings are available for anyone that wants them. In addition to the recorded lectures, I created additional videos. If I was getting questions about a topic, I would be quick to just record a video showing this new hands-on thing rather than wait to cover it in class or cover it with each student individually.

Truthfully, since the pandemic ended, I haven’t changed much in my approach from those days. I added quite a bit at the start of the pandemic and subsequently, I teach the same, just in-person. I still maintain that same sort of flexibility.

I learn all my students’ names, which all things being equal, doesn’t sound remarkable. But it’s something students constantly note in my reviews: I’m one of the few who does that. Because of that, I chat with them each and I’m maybe a little more aware of what’s going on in their lives so that I can be flexible around their troubles.

Advice for Instructors and the Future of Teaching at Columbia 

Be reflective and responsive. 

My first piece of advice is that when a topic is not getting through, or your reviews are not as positive as you hoped, it can be very tempting to blame the students. It’s usually some version of today’s students don’t know how to work like we did in the past. My usual mode of thinking is that, if a lot of students are challenged by or have issues with a specific thing, I’m probably contributing to that. So I would encourage professors to take the same pause and reflection that the pandemic forced me to take. Think about: why? Don’t just think about keeping your habit. That sounds simple but it’s rarely done. It can be unrealistic to expect every student to learn the way that we learned. And so along with that, again, be flexible: If the topic isn’t clicking, teach it differently. Provide additional materials. Don’t just say they should be learning this better.   

Don’t be afraid of open-ended, active learning. 

I believe firmly, and a lot of the engineering educational research confirms the belief, that students learn best when they are in charge of their own educational path–when they get to choose topics that interest them. They also work harder because they’re working on something they care about. They’re more curious. They learn more because it’s something they want to learn about. I think the main reason professors don’t do it is that they’re harder to grade – there’s no set criteria of which you grade on. And that’s true. It’s more difficult to grade. It’s also more work in that you’re now not managing one set of problems over and over again, but it’s something that can take on almost any path. But I think that that difficulty is worth the gains you get from their learning and from their passion. So don’t be afraid of that extra work.

Be flexible. 

Every student has a different home situation, mental health situation, physical health situation, financial situation. Some work intense hours at multiple jobs, some don’t. You can’t therefore expect one blanket rule or policy to apply to everyone. I think that many people don’t modify on the notion of fairness. But that’s distinctly unfair. To me, fairness means listening to your students, modifying based on what is going on in their lives, and not having one blanket rule. Some students learn best through encouragement, some students learn best through critique, and everywhere in between. For any given student, circumstances change day to day, so again, be flexible. Don’t be rigid.

I would like to see a teaching world where students are met halfway instead of always expecting them to rise to the professor’s level. Someof this can be done with physical tools to even the playing field a bit. We could send every student a 3D printer if we had the money for it. It would be nice if students had the option to try out ideas quickly whenevery they have them and not be constrained by the hours of the shop. But until that money materializes, the more realistic thing is with our teaching–to embrace multiple modalities of student learning and to allow open-ended assignments so they can embrace their interests. We can offer students the flexibility to accommodate their interests whenever they arise–or their lives, whenever issues arise.

Figure A: Dr. Yesilevskiy wearing the FaceShieldOne, a rapidly prototyped face shield created by a design team led by Dr. Yesilevskiy.  It was distributed within the New York Presbyterian hospital network. 

Figure B: Project kits sent to Senior mechanical engineers