Stefanie Mueller changes everything: A hands-on class responds to Covid

Assistant professor adapts her laboratory class, Engineering Interactive Technologies, to the pandemic, with surprising results.

When Professor Stefanie Mueller needed to adapt her laboratory class to the Covid-19 pandemic, she was initially overwhelmed by the amount of work that would need to be done. That’s because Mueller’s hands-on building and fabrication class, 6.810 (Engineering Interactive Technologies), is entirely about the ways that humans interact with technology in the physical world. As it turns out, however, technology held some surprises — even for Mueller.

“At the beginning, I thought it would be so much work to rethink everything, but it was also a really good opportunity to rethink our teaching,” says the assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science (EECS), who immediately realized that the vast majority of class work — tuning and re-tuning design concepts — would have to be done in isolation. “It’s a building-based class, so normally, the students sit with us in an extended lab section while we prototype together. With Covid, you can’t have people sitting together, so we introduced a bunch of changes. First, we gave everyone a little bag full of electronic components to take home and work with,” says Mueller. Those basic components combine with more specialized products generated in the lab to create a wide variety of interactive technologies, including touchpads and devices giving haptic feedback.

With the majority of the class’s work shifting to dorm rooms, Mueller needed a better way to capture the free-flowing discussions and casual dynamic of a large group. Pre-pandemic, Mueller had used the familiar MIT tool Piazza to facilitate student discussions outside of class. “Piazza is more like a forum or board where a question is posted, then answered, and then the post goes down,” says Mueller, who wanted to find a better substitution for the organic conversations of a working lab — and found it in office chat tool Slack. “We found that Slack lowers the barrier for students to reach out because it’s much more informal than email,” says Mueller, who assigned every student a private Slack channel on the class’s shared workspace for one-to-one communications with their instructor, setting up additional channels for broad group discussion. “All the labs are now write-ups, with checkpoints where the students are asked to post pictures or videos on Slack to make sure they’re doing it correctly.”

Facing the limitations of remote troubleshooting, Mueller also set up a scheduling system for students to get in-person help and use tools too bulky and expensive for individual distribution. “[Students] book a time to come into the lab, get help, laser-cut and 3D print, so they never overcrowd the space and so there is time to sanitize,” she reports. Deep cleaning between each set of distanced visitors to the lab added another layer of complexity. “Covid meant we had to find new ways to offer the same level of teaching quality while keeping everyone safe and following all safety measures necessary in this pandemic,” says Michael Wessely, a co-instructor for 6.810. “I was truly impressed how well the teaching staff, MIT administration, and the staff from IDC [International Design Center], where we hold all of our practical sessions, worked hand-in-hand to provide the best experience possible for the students.”

During Covid, only a few students at a time could convene in the laboratory space to use large fabrication tools like the 3D printer. Deep cleaning followed each group. Photo Courtesy of Juliana Sohn

The projects made by Mueller’s students are as cutting-edge as the technology used to make them. One such project, a multi-touch pad based on the fundamental principles that underlay modern smartphone screens, was designed by EECS PhD candidate Junyi Zhu. “When Stefanie and I were brainstorming the problem set series for the class, we wanted it to cover more interactive technologies, as well as including the design and prototyping stages of an interactive device, so that the students would have a ‘full-cycle’ experience from digital design to physical fabrication and system building,” says Zhu, who acted as a teaching assistant (TA) for the course. “We also wanted it to be relatively new and raw, so that students would not feel bored. We looked through some projects and publications from recent years' top HCI [human-computer interaction] conferences, and finally developed the multi-touch pad problem set series, which includes digital parametric design and physical fabrication of the multi-touch pad, electronic prototyping and circuit design, sensing data visualization, application development, and presentation materials creation (e.g., rotoscope drawing, short sequences video).”

By layering up lessons, each predicated on a successful problem-solve, Zhu, whose current research focuses on object form and electronic function integration in interactive device prototyping, free-form electronics, and health sensing, hopes to give students an accurate sense of the experience of product development. “We believe that this can help students learn not only the technical skills, but also some ‘thinking models’ and fundamentals of interactive device/system design.”

The projects in 6.810 frequently require advanced problem-solving skills, which students develop through laborious trial and error. One such project, an interactive mug, requires critical thought at every stage, as project designer Wessely explains: “In contrast to software engineering, where there is a wide selection of debugging tools, a fabricated prototype does not have any automatic tool to find errors in the fabrication, for example, of a sprayed thin film layer of a functional material. Students have to be their own ‘debugger’ by deeply understanding how fabrication technologies and materials work and behave.”

The students aren’t the only ones who’ve developed strong problem-solving skills during the class. The faculty and co-instructors of 6.810 report that rising to the challenges posed by the pandemic has improved their pedagogy and left them with a lasting respect for their students.

“TAing for a hybrid class during the pandemic was not easy, with extra logistical costs and precautions (e.g., practically self-quarantining all the time outside of the class to make sure to be able to show up in person for class OHs and workshops) across the entire semester,” says Junyi Zhu. “Similar challenges were faced by our students as well, with limited in-person office hours and activities affecting the learning and debugging experience, extra stress from the pandemic, etc. I am very proud of our students and the quality of their final projects.”

Michael Wessely was left with a similar impression of his students’ strength. “I learned that MIT students are extremely dedicated and resilient, and are prepared to be successful no matter how complex or challenging a task is,” says Wessely.

As for Mueller, she plans to bring many of the lessons of the pandemic back into her class when normal life resumes. “On Slack you have a history of a student’s project, and a TA can jump in much faster, which was a big plus. I will definitely use that workspace next year,” she notes. “Also, normally I would just have office hours, but I would not have sign-up slots. In retrospect, my TAs were overcrowded and I didn’t know who was there to get help; the whole spreadsheet signup made it easier to plan.”

With the lessons of this strange time in hand, Mueller is prepared to prototype a new, better 6.810 long into the future.