Building Community During a Pandemic: Dr. Melissa Kenny Reflects on Bringing a Personal Touch to Remote Teaching

Assistant Teaching Professor Dr. Melissa Kenny is a natural academic with a heightened passion for teaching, educating, and cultivating student growth. Her degrees and experiences in biomedical engineering brought her to Wake Engineering where a liberal arts curriculum, collaborative nature, and innovative mindset will allow her to teach a variety of content, including a biologically-inspired design course on “biomimetics” next semester. Besides Wake Engineering’s creativity in courses, Dr. Kenny takes pride in the department’s emphasis on building community. Since its start, Wake Engineering has emphasized team-building as a key tenant of the program’s uniqueness. Losing this sense of communal belonging was a great concern when learning shifted to a remote platform. Online learning has taken away the subtle moments which build community such as the miniature conversations that often occur at the beginning or end of classes. With the inability to passively engage in these moments, faculty are cultivating spaces for these casual interactions. For instance, Dr. Kenny has encouraged students to spend their first few minutes together in breakout groups chatting prior to discussing the problem at hand while also switching student teams often to increase diverse interactions.

In an effort to identify silver linings, Dr. Kenny has also shared that there are pieces of remotely taught courses that are worth holding on to. For example, she has found that, for some topics, a flipped classroom model where students watch lecture content asynchronously online before discussing the content in online office hours or responding to online discussion topics has led to deeper conversations and learning. Giving students time to process lecture material and reflect in a self-paced online community has impacted the richness of contemplative responses greatly while also playing to students who express different learning types. In a similar fashion, engaging in hands-on activities remotely has led to some really unique projects: one of Dr. Kenny’s favorite class activities for 1st year engineering students involves using a cart of craft supplies for a “quick design exercise.” In this new remote setting, Dr. Kenny asked students to use any materials they had at home (or in their hotel room for students who were in quarantine) to build a carrying apparatus. To add a layer of team building, students were asked to design this carrying apparatus for a partner’s particular needs. Following the building portion of the activity, students shared their new designs while also introducing their partnered classmate to the rest of the class. For more complex hands-on activities, Dr. Kenny has taken the time to assemble and ship activity kits directly to students. These kits, which have included a mini waffle maker disassembly project, are accompanied by instructional videos.This level of intentionality displayed by educators like Dr. Kenny sprouts from a place of care and is symbolic of the high level of commitment that Wake Engineering places in producing incredible team-oriented engineers.

Dr. Melissa Kenny and EGR 111 students

Dr. Melissa Kenny and EGR 111 students at the EGR 111 Cardboard Showcase

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