Architectural engineering transforms engineering studio into classroom


UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s Department of Architectural Engineering brought together a unique blend of faculty expertise to find innovative solutions to challenges posed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic — including the transformation of an engineering design studio space into a mixed-mode, socially distanced classroom.

Architectural engineering Department Head Sez Atamturktur said that empathy has led her department’s decision-making. “Our policy has been to work with every student, regardless of their circumstances during the pandemic, to help them complete their education uninterrupted. Whether they are out of the country without a visa, or if they couldn’t come to campus due to health reasons, we want to make sure they can all succeed and excel.”

That philosophy has led to what Atamturktur described as “an incredible amount of flexibility” for each professor to adjust their courses based on student need — leading to over 90% of the department’s courses to be held in “mixed modality” with both components for in-person students and remote learners simultaneously.

One element that has helped architectural engineering complete this goal was a large-scale renovation undertaken over the summer of the department’s studio in Engineering Unit A — a 6,500 square-foot open space in a nearly century-old building, that has now been retrofitted with state-of-the-art technology to support mixed-mode student learning and maximize public safety.

Moses Ling, architectural engineering teaching professor and undergraduate programs officer, said the proposal to renovate the studio came with several challenges: How do you lay out desks and technology to appropriately distance students in the classroom? How do you utilize windows, airflow and HVAC systems to maximize air quality and safety?

Thankfully, architectural engineering experts are well-equipped to answer these questions.

“These are the kinds of problems that we train our students to solve, so we knew that this was something that we could do,” Ling said. “What architectural engineering does is make it possible to do things better in the buildings we use — and that’s exactly what we did for ourselves with this studio space over the summer.”

The studio in Engineering Unit A now boasts cameras and other AV technologies for the benefit of remote students, as well as completely rebuilt windows and new window exhaust fans designed to create a constant flow of fresh air to maximize air quality and safety.

“It is an awesome environment for class,” said Caitlyn Longenecker, a third-year architectural engineering student. “They’ve adapted it to have six big TVs on wheels positioned around the room connected to the instructor up front, which also gives the opportunity for the instructor to be on Zoom at the same time. Even if you’re at home, you can still come to the lecture.”

She described it as “a very safe environment,” with proper social distancing, increased ventilation and enhanced airflow. “Our professors are the best people to make those adjustments, and to have them help make the studio the best space possible for our learning experience is amazing.”

Atamturktur praised the department’s faculty and how they applied their knowledge to serving their students — as well as the wider University community.

“We’ve also been sharing that expertise with the University’s Office of Physical Plant and one of our faculty members is even writing a research proposal based on the work we did,” she said.

Ling said that he continues to be impressed with the dedication and quality of the department’s students and how they have handled these challenges with aplomb.

“One thing that’s been really helpful for me, since the end of last semester, is that we’ve been receiving consistent communications and updates from Dr. Sez and from Prof. Moses — what this semester would look like, what COVID safety would look like, even opportunities and classes we could take over the summer,” Longenecker said. “That’s how this department is. It’s very open. Sez loves talking to us, being present with us, putting faces to names. Before social distancing, her signature thing was giving high-fives to everyone.”

For Atamturktur, she said she was also deeply impressed by the dedication of architectural engineering’s faculty. Over the summer, she would host weekly meetings to plan for the fall semester, which were optional for faculty to attend — yet each virtual meeting, each week, saw full attendance and engagement from all members of the faculty who were eager to find ways to come together and continue realizing their academic mission.

“It’s a reflection of our Penn State values,” Atamturktur said. “We looked out for our community, we strived for excellence, we took responsibility for what we could do, we respected everyone’s individual needs and circumstances and we kept looking for new solutions and ideas for these challenges we’re all facing together.”


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Megan Lakatos

students at work in the renovated lab space
The newly renovated engineering design studio in Engineering Unit A allows for proper social distancing for in-person students, and features AV technology to allow remote students to attend lectures in real time. IMAGE: PATRICK MANSELL

a student wearing a facemask cleans his work surface
Jaeyouing Lee, a fourth-year student studying architectural engineering, uses the antiseptic wipes and sanitizers made available to disinfect his table prior to the start of an AE 404 class in 301 Engineering Unit A. IMAGE: PATRICK MANSELL