How do you learn engineering – traditionally a hands-on subject with a strong element of lab-based content – in a socially-distanced world which is discouraging physical interaction?

That is the problematic question being faced by universities all over the world, as they grapple with having to manage profound change resulting from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The answer, in part, comes with engineering faculties embracing technology to deliver new ways of teaching that still provide high-quality learning during what are undoubtedly challenging times.

So, here we look at four ways that engineering departments are coping with life in the new normal.

Blended learning: interactive and intuitive

Universities have acted quickly to adopt higher levels of remote learning, building up large accessible repositories of online resources. Academics have also adapted their teaching methods, with ‘live’ Zoom lectures and pre-recorded practical work now a regular part of campus life. Lecturers are augmenting this content with more carefully prepared hand-written notes that can be shared more easily on-screen in real-time by students as part of smaller breakout rooms. The focus is on using the digital environment to make learning more intuitive and interactive – anytime, anywhere.

DIY experiments: hands-on at home

While some practical work can only ever be conducted in well-equipped laboratories, engineering lecturers are getting more adept at creating experiments that can be performed at home. This is enabled through the use of pre-prepared “lab kits” containing essential components that allow students to perform home-based activities such as benchtop chemistry tasks or circuit board assembly. These activities are also being supported by the development of new virtual experiment websites, which allow students perform tasks and observe the relevant physics, while having to take and record data, make judgements and interpret results. It is all about delivering that ‘hands-on’ practical experience in more accessible ways.

Virtual reality: immersive environments

Technology such as augmented and virtual reality (AVR) is finding increasing application in industry and commerce, and it is now also finding a role in academia. Some universities are already using AVR platforms to enable educators to create interactive online experiences, where digital content can be overlaid onto the physical world, without the need for students to have any coding or advanced technological knowledge. The material can be delivered on different devices, including a phone, tablet, or head-mounted display, helping to bring online learning to life.

Software access: industry supports students

Many engineering-related organisations have rallied in support of the academic sector, building in additional functionality to academic software licenses to encourage students to collaborate and create more effectively. These initiatives are being supported by the development of specialised online COVID-19 communities, which enable students to connect with industry experts to share ideas and benefit from experienced feedback. Whether it is computer-aided design vendors or test and measurement software providers, the pandemic has resulted in the forging of stronger links between businesses and the academic base as a means of enhancing the learning experience.

No going back: new ways of working are here to stay

We can see, then, that engineering education is changing – and fast. The pandemic has forced universities to think long and hard about how learning is delivered and to respond in increasingly innovative ways. There is no denying that learning engineering remotely will never be the same as doing so face-to-face within academic institutions. But the application of new processes and technologies in tandem can ensure that students get the quality of education they deserve.