Engineering professor offers stability and community during remote period


By Miranda Buckheit

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – While Penn State students adjust to the change in learning, some engineering students are finding comfort and joy in their remote classes.

Sarah Root, associate teaching professor in the College of Engineering’s Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering, is trying to bring a realm of normalcy into the students’ new reality.

“I’m trying to keep the trains running and arriving at the station on time, so to speak,” Root said. “If I can provide the students with a sense of stability while keeping things on schedule, then I hope that helps them feel less confused and alone.”

Root, like all University faculty, students and staff, had her schedule upended when Penn State shifted to the remote learning ecosystem. In a matter of days, faculty and students were online and communicating via Zoom, a video conferencing platform.

Root is teaching two courses remotely, IE 424: Probability and Statistics, which is for non-industrial engineering majors, and IE 302: Engineering Economic Analysis. In addition to her teaching load, she is working via Zoom to provide drop-in advising hours to the industrial engineering (IE) student population.

“Things simply aren’t the same as they would be in a face-to-face environment,” Root said. “What used to be a 50-minute lecture on a Wednesday morning is now a Zoom meeting and Canvas modules. Engineers are problem-solvers though, and we can’t just throw our hands up. My logic is this: confined spaces often produce the most creative solutions.”

Building a community with laughter

Not only is Root working hard to keep a state of routine for the sake of the students, but she is also trying to instill some joy and laughter.

Due to the cancelation of National Collegiate Athletic Association’s March Madness, and to keep her students entertained, Root has implemented a “March Meme Madness.”

Working in a bracket structure, similar to the traditional March Madness, students can submit a funny image that they made, which is related to the class, the material, the deadlines or interesting things that have happened. The voting process will dwindle down to the top “meme.”

She hopes the contest gives her students a chance to laugh in the midst of this difficult time, while providing them with the opportunity to earn some extra credit by creating the funny images.

The students are also taking initiative by building a sense of community. In the IE 302 class, Mackenzie Dominick, a second-year IE student, suggested that the class sing Happy Birthday for their peer, Andrea Castaneda, a fellow second-year IE student.

“It was a really funny, beautiful moment,” Root said. “People held up their pets and all sang Happy Birthday to her. While we may not be together like we are for a football game in Beaver Stadium, we still have a strong Penn State community, which is really special.”

Castaneda said that online learning has been a huge switch, but Root has been helping the students as much as she can throughout the whole process by asking for feedback and keeping morale up.

“Dr. Root loved the idea right away,” Castaneda said. “It was really sweet to watch. Zoom classes are not usually as fun, but this one was! She makes class interactive and amusing.”

Now, Root has now made a special time in her class to focus on things that are worth celebrating. Each time the students have a recitation session, a time where students can come together to problem solve, Root asks them to share something that is uplifting.

“We’re going to try to keep things as ‘not crazy’ as possible,” Root said.

Marching ahead

The shift to online learning hasn’t been easy, which is why Root encourages faculty across the University to get involved with their digital learning offices. She said that online teaching takes effort to be successful and she found great help in the College of Engineering’s Office for Digital Learning.

“I’m really grateful for the interactions that are happening on Zoom because in-person and online isn’t an exact translation,” Root said. “It takes a lot of time and effort to make it work well.”

Root hopes that students are enjoying her classes this semester and find that they can have a break from current events. She acknowledged that students have busy lives, too, so it’s critical to communicate necessary deadlines and expectations.

“It’s tricky because I need to overcommunicate with them but also respect their autonomy,” Root said. “I don’t want to seem like I’m inundating them with information, but I also don’t want them to submit late assignments.”

The experience of using the online tools has given her inspiration for the ways she can work in the future. She plans to implement more use of the Microsoft Office suite of applications and the Zoom video conferencing platform.

“Moving to this remote learning structure has made me revisit some of the assumptions that I have carried over my near 14-year teaching career,” Root said. “Assumptions simply don’t hold.”

Root said that, due to the location of the Leonhard Building, she may begin implementing more Zoom sessions for advising in place of the traditional in-person sessions once students, faculty and staff are back on campus.

“If students don’t have to come all the way out to the Leonhard Building right after a class, that might make their life easier because they don’t have to rush around,” Root said.

She hopes to use the Zoom feature in the future for students who aren’t feeling well so that they do not feel the pressure to come to campus for an advising appointment.

“You have to make active learning work in this online environment, and I’m an investigator,” Root said. “I’m really looking at how I can shake things up, and I think this experience will help me do that.”


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Megan Lakatos

“Engineers are problem-solvers though, and we can’t just throw our hands up. My logic is this: confined spaces often produce the most creative solutions.”
—Sarah Root, Associate Teaching Professor