Architectural engineering students, faculty resilient in the face of change


By Mariah Chuprinski

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A few weeks ago, architectural engineering seniors at Penn State packed for spring break, not knowing it would be the last time they worked in the labs, studios and classrooms that had become like a second home, according to Ryan Solnosky, associate teaching professor of architectural engineering (AE).

“It was a large adjustment at first,” said Solnosky. “There were concerns about getting access to design software, including codes and calculations that students had left in the labs.”

Of primary concern were students’ senior thesis projects, a capstone assessment where students redesign parts of real existing buildings, with design work tailored to their option area. Students in the mechanical option redesign energy-efficient HVAC systems in a building, for example, while structural option students focus on redesigning the structural gravity and lateral systems.

Working closely with the College of Engineering’s information technology team, Solnosky and AE Professor Kevin Parfitt arranged for students to access the software they needed through a remote desktop functionality, which allows students to log in to physical computers in the labs while away from University Park.

Aside from the supply challenges, students and faculty had to overcome the organizational challenges of completing, presenting and grading thesis projects, which include a mandatory final presentation.

“We are having regular meetings and check-ins with students through Zoom to get them ready to finish their projects and prepare for their presentations,” Solnosky said. “Now, instead of an in-person presentation, students will record their presentations and submit it to faculty, who will still evaluate designs as if the presentation were done in person.”

Students also will continue to receive awards for the best thesis design or best presentation, a 50-year tradition that normally takes place at the Spring Awards Banquet each May and is judged by a jury of industry practitioners. This year, AE faculty will select the finalists and most of the winners while a small group of industry practitioners will participate virtually in the selection of some of the top senior thesis awards

Awards for first-, second-, third- and fourth-year students will be announced at a new event in Fall 2020.

“The new awards event will give all sponsors a chance to meet and get to know the students they are recognizing and sponsoring,” said Parfitt. “This new event was already in the planning stage given the steady increase in the number of scholarships available to AE students and, due to the limited time available at the banquet, we now have the chance to move the awarding that will be missed this year into the fall.”

Another challenge students and administrators had to overcome was the logistics behind the Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) International Student Design Competition, an alternative thesis project option where teams of students work together to design a cohesive building package that highlights the expertise of students in all option areas: construction, lighting/electrical, mechanical and structural.

The AEI competition also has been moved to a virtual delivery format, where teams now submit a video presentation to be judged in the same way as if they had presented the project in person, bringing with it many logistical challenges for the 10-person team.

“It can be difficult to coordinate everyone’s ideas when we’re in the same room,” said David Gawryla, fifth-year AE student in the structural option. “Now that we’re forced to be spread across the country, full-team coordination is nearly impossible when working on the same document or engineering problem. Our solution has been to break the team down into smaller, more manageable subgroups that have a specific focus. Now, instead of emailing and texting nine other people every time a change is needed, a member only needs to contact two or three. This significantly speeds up the design process and decreases complications.”

Students participating in the AEI competition will each record themselves presenting a small portion of the project, which they will stitch together into one cohesive video. Students are now focusing on the presentation since the design portion of the project was completed before the University transitioned to remote learning.

“While breaking down into smaller groups might not be the perfect method, it has helped us make good progress on the presentation rather than trying to collaborate as a whole,” said Rachel Coyle, fifth-year AE student in the mechanical option.

Final presentations are due April 15 and winners will be announced shortly thereafter. Last year, Penn State placed first in all five core categories, including the top honor of building integration.


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Megan Lakatos