By Joie Nicole Marhefka, PhD

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of our daily lives in multiple ways—in many cases, changing the way we work, learn, and socialize. It certainly has had a big impact on the education field. At Penn State New Kensington, where I teach courses in our biomedical engineering technology (BMET) program, we have had to switch from in-person to online classes, deal with delays in and changes to internships, and teach classes and labs while wearing masks and implementing social distancing protocols. COVID-19 has led to a lot of changes, challenges, and lessons learned, and even to a few opportunities, in our program and in the education field in general.

Continuing Changes

Since March, the way classes have been taught at Penn State New Kensington and at schools around the world has changed significantly in a number of ways. From March through the end of the spring semester, like for many other schools, all our classes were online. This included lecture and laboratory classes, and we had to make the switch seemingly overnight.

During the summer, some students were able to do internships in person, following COVID-19 safely protocols but otherwise as normal. However, other students were not afforded this opportunity, as some hospitals were unable to take interns. These students ended up taking an online course as an alternative to the internship to allow them to graduate on time. 

We are having in-person classes as of when I am writing this column, but will revert to online classes again later in the semester. Teaching and learning in person has been different this semester, as everyone is required to wear masks and observe social distancing requirements on campus. This has mostly eliminated group work in labs and forced changes in the way many classes are taught.

Facing Challenges

These changes have brought about several challenges. Finding ways to effectively teach labs and hands-on skills online and, to a lesser extent, in socially distanced classrooms has been a major challenge. Initially, we were given very little time to make the switch to online learning, which was an additional hurdle. I know that I did a lot of figuring out what worked and what did not as I was going along, but teaching hands-on content online remains a challenge. 

Another challenge has been figuring out, to the extent possible, how to replace the experience and knowledge that the students gain from tours of local hospitals. We typically tour several different hospitals every year, but this will likely not be possible this year due to the pandemic. Finding ways for students to get the real-world experience, which makes internships so important, has been yet another challenge brought about by COVID-19. 

Finally, gauging whether students are understanding material has become more difficult with everyone wearing masks, making it impossible to see facial reactions. And I often worry that the students in the back of the class will have trouble hearing me teaching with a mask covering my face.

Lessons Learned

Through these challenges, we have learned several lessons about what works, what doesn’t, and how to teach BMET most effectively online and in socially distanced classrooms. It should come as no surprise that teaching equipment operation, PM procedures, and troubleshooting virtually is tough and has limitations, especially when the students were expecting significant hands-on time with the equipment. We were able to do demos of various equipment for the students, but they were not able to get hands-on experience. 

I taught a troubleshooting course in the spring and had to make significant changes with very little time to prepare. We were able to find some things that work—such as troubleshooting assignments using manuals and error codes and constructing troubleshooting trees based on descriptions or videos of malfunctioning equipment. However, we were not able to truly replace the hands-on experience of troubleshooting and repairing a broken device. 

During the summer, I developed and taught a course for students who were unable to complete the internship that they needed to graduate. While an online class can’t replace the real-world experience gained during an internship, we were able to meet the learning objectives of the internship using various online videos (and having the students write a journal summarizing videos they watched on different PM procedures), troubleshooting exercises including scenarios for troubleshooting over the phone, and weekly guest lectures from people working in various roles in HTM. The students were able to talk with and ask questions of these professionals, giving them the chance to make some connections that they might have missed by not doing an internship. 

I am currently back to teaching most courses on campus, although I am offering one section of our introductory course online. I have managed to adapt the activities from the in-person class so that they work in a virtual environment. I will be interested to see how student learning and feedback compare between the online section and the in-person section. 

In other courses, we have had to make minor changes, such as having students work individually during lab rather than in groups and using online tools, such as Zoom breakout rooms, to facilitate group work in other situations. I have found students to enjoy and benefit from group work on Zoom. Not only has it allowed them to maintain the learning benefits of teamwork, but it has given them an opportunity to talk with their peers, which has been less available than usual during the pandemic. 

Social distancing has changed the way we can give students individual help as well. Rather than looking over a student’s shoulder while they work, we have found ways to talk through issues from a distance, work out problems on the board, and use Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and other online platforms to share files. The things we have learned so far will make us better prepared to keep teaching and for the students to keep learning, whether it be in person or online, throughout this pandemic.

Unexpected Opportunities

Finally, looking at the positives, I believe that this pandemic did create and uncover some unique opportunities for our students. The HTM community came together to support educators, and we used resources from AAMI, GE Healthcare, Fluke Biomedical, and other schools to quickly build online content for our virtual courses. Various trainings and videos available from these and other sources have allowed us to quickly transition courses to virtual formats.

The students were also given the opportunity to speak with professionals from all over the country through virtual guest lectures and question-and-answer sessions, where in the past we had only heard from local speakers in the classroom. This has allowed students to hear from people with a broad range of experiences and career paths. Finally, we have learned how to better use available virtual tools for labs and for collaboration. 

While I look forward to the day that we can conduct our classes on campus normally again, I try to embrace the sense of community and the opportunities that have been uncovered during the pandemic. And, as we continue to face challenges in education brought about by COVID-19, we will continue to learn, adapt, and keep teaching the next generation of HTM professionals. 

Joie N. Marhefka, PhD, is assistant teaching professor and biomedical engineering technology program coordinator at Penn State New Kensington in Western Pennsylvania. Questions and comments can be directed to 24×7 Magazine chief editor Keri Forsythe-Stephens at editor@24x7mag.com.