Bake-off breaks and virtual research: How an engineering lab beat Zoom fatigue


By Samantha Chavanic

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Before March 2020, a typical THRED (Technology and Human Research in Engineering Design) Group research meeting consisted of faculty and students gathering in a conference room to enjoy coffee, donuts and casual small talk before listening to researcher and guest speaker presentations on the group’s specialty: people, products, processes and the interactions among them.

When the pandemic began and Penn State moved to remote learning more than a year ago, in-person lab meetings came to an immediate stop. The question for THRED Group and every other lab across the University became: What can be done to keep students engaged in their research and with each other? The THRED Group had an extension of the question, though. With the group’s research focused on interactions, how could it encourage engagement in a world where the meaning of “interaction” had suddenly shifted?

According to Hannah Nolte, an industrial engineering doctoral student, THRED Group transitioned quickly to Zoom meetings.

“When Penn State went virtual, we had to learn how to do our research virtually, collaborate virtually,” she said. “We had to be more intentional about staying connected as a group.”

Sandeep Krishnakumar, an industrial engineering doctoral student, said the transition from in-person meetings to virtual connections went smoothly. He credits this to discussions initiated by THRED Group directors Chris McComb, James L. Henderson Jr. Memorial Assistant Professor of Engineering Design, and Jessica Menold, Hartz Family Career Development Assistant Professor of Engineering Design and Mechanical Engineering.

“We both recognized this as an opportunity to redesign our lab meetings to better serve the researchers in THRED,” McComb said. “Like all good design, that process needed to start with engaging our stakeholders: the members of THRED.”

Krishnakumar explained that for the remainder of the spring 2020 semester, the structure of the research group’s meetings remained similar: Students presented on their research, just in a virtual setting.

In fall 2020, the research group pivoted again, focusing efforts on topics such as roundtable information gathering and research communications — as well as unique meeting themes like “designing” one’s life, how to solve hard problems, team trivia, and a comfort food bake-off.

“In the fall, we focused on fundamental skills our graduate and undergraduate researchers need to be successful beyond research or the classroom,” Menold said. “We brought in speakers and created workshops to touch on topics ranging from engineering communication to finding and pursuing a career that aligns with your passions.”

For mechanical engineering senior Priya Pradhan, the varied themes provided her with experiences she may not have encountered in a traditional, research-based, in-person meeting. From learning different ways to organize her life, to a “break” to bake, Pradhan said Menold and McComb’s efforts to hold intriguing and entertaining meetings helped the students, and themselves, get through a challenging academic year.

“It’s important that the meetings were different and engaging each week because of Zoom fatigue,” she said. “It was difficult to attend classes and meetings over Zoom every day. Dr. Menold and Dr. McComb experienced the same fatigue from being online all day, so it was important to them, too, that our meetings were engaging.”

Nolte echoed this, highlighting the isolation students felt not attending class or researching in person. She said through the group’s drive and ingenuity, every member stayed connected not just for research purposes but also for their well-being.

“Staying engaged and connected to the other THRED Group members helped me get through working at home,” Nolte said.

Krishnakumar appreciated THRED Group members’ willingness to try new things, apply design thinking in different ways and remain connected in what he describes as a “rough patch” for many.

“I think we’re a very dynamic lab and everyone brings something unique to the table, so it was important for everyone to be able to contribute ideas ranging from guest lectures to professional development activities to random social activities,” he said. “Most of us were spending a considerable number of hours on Zoom every day, so it was important for us to make sure the lab meetings were as engaging and fun as possible.”

For the spring 2021 semester, the research group remained virtual and combined unique engagement opportunities with short “lightning talks” on ongoing research.

“It’s a big community we have, but that means we would need a big space to make sure everyone is safe and socially distanced [to meet in-person],” Krishnakumar said. “We worked to make sure our meetings are not just ‘another Zoom meeting.’ Every week was so different — I never felt the monotony hitting me.”


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College of Engineering Media Relations

“When Penn State went virtual, we had to learn how to do our research virtually, collaborate virtually. We had to be more intentional about staying connected as a group.”
—Hannah Nolte, industrial engineering doctoral student