'We’ve gained the confidence to try new things': Faculty of Engineering dean on a year of disruption and change

- March 31, 2021

John Newhook. (Provided photo)
John Newhook. (Provided photo)

When COVID-19 forced Dalhousie to close its campus in March 2020, it created unprecedented challenges and disruptions to people’s lives, educational experiences and careers.

Since then, the Dal community has found new and notable ways to teach, forge connections and be of service. As we complete a full year within these circumstances, we’re checking in with a few of Dal’s academic leaders to learn how their communities overcame obstacles and found opportunity, and to commemorate the effort that’s gone in to getting it done.

John Newhook, dean of the Faculty of Engineering, says he is amazed at how the many talented individuals in his Faculty put their skills and resources to use in solving problems at the community level and how students rose above the challenge and made some key learnings that will help shape the plans for what’s next.

One year later, Dr. Newhook reflects on what the past 12 months has meant at the Faculty of Engineering:

How did the upheaval brought on by COVID-19 impact research in the Faculty of Engineering?

There's no denying that the initial three-month period where everything stopped, that cessation of all research, had a significant impact on researchers in terms of progress. That said, we were very fortunate to be able to get researchers back starting in July, in a limited fashion, and then slowly build over the next few months. We’ve also been very successful with some of the research proposals that were submitted just before the whole pandemic started and even, in some cases, with some that were submitted during it. So, researchers have continued to be successful in securing opportunities. Of course, we're looking forward to getting back to full on-campus research activities — to get the productivity up. And we’re looking at making sure we support early career researchers as best we can because they were the most affected.

What do you see as some of the lasting impacts of the pandemic on engineering education at Dal?

I think we’ve seen — and perhaps for some people wasn't so much seeing but confirming — the value and the importance of the on-campus activities and student experience outside of the classroom lectures. We often think of education as being all about the lectures, and they are very important, but what we saw was the importance of all the other experiences, the student experience as whole. This includes the lab experience and the hands-on, extra-curricular and co-curricular activities. And certainly, the peer-to-peer connection among students — not only their ability to work in groups and have a social network but also their ability to interact with their professors more one on one. Also, the access to workshops and makerspaces. To the point where, as we talk about strategic planning coming out of this, part of our vision is to really be known for an immersive engineering experience that’s hands-on, on-campus.

At the same time, we’ve included some of what we’ve learned about the potential for online activities in that vision. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from students about advantages of well-designed online lectures. There are a lot of students who find that having recorded lectures, whether they're synchronous and you can view them later or asynchronous, gives them the ability to access that material on their own terms. They said it’s really valuable in their learning — especially students who need extra time to absorb the concepts or who struggle with the language and need to replay to make sure they're getting the language right. It’s got us thinking about some of our larger classes and what it would mean if we really committed to online when the classes are very large.

We've also learned the value of much smaller compact modules. For example, viewing a brief introductory video prior to going to the lab can lead to a much more effective lab experience. We do have several in-person labs this winter and that combination of using online tools as prep allows us to make the most of the precious time we have for students to be on campus.

I think the other general thing is the knowledge and experience that we can adapt our pedagogies. Now that we've been forced to do that and think differently, we’ve gained the confidence to try new things. And it’s also resulted in a lot more collegial exchange about teaching. As a dean, it's always very encouraging to see that dialogue, that peer-to-peer support in terms of faculty members and instructors talking about teaching and pedagogies and technology.

Further reading: Putting students first: Engineering prof takes cues from in‑person experiences for pandemic‑era classes

What has been the most inspiring aspect of leading the Faculty over the past year?

Students are always the most inspiring thing for me. There is no denying the absolute challenge that students have faced. As much as it was a challenge for us for educators, it's a bigger challenge for students to adapt to this online experience. And seeing their success when I look around is inspiring. I look at some of our student societies and groups and the student leaders who have stepped up. Watching the students who are able to deal with all of the challenges and still be student leaders and contributors who make a difference for their fellow students — you can’t not be inspired. And our students continue to receive awards: we had a Rhodes Scholar this year — and continue to win competitions: Dalhousie students had more top 3 finishes in the recent Canadian Engineering Competition than any other school in Canada.

Further reading: Engineering inspiration: How new Rhodes Scholar Sierra Sparks brings community to life

Two Dal Engineering students earn first‑place prize in national competition

How has your Faculty contributed to the efforts to combat COVID-19?

In the very first weeks, so much focus was placed on the PPE: the masks, the shields and then respirators and the fear of that shortage and we had people step up with ideas for ways to innovate and help with production.

Further reading: Shields up: Dal labs collaborate on 3D‑printed face shield for health‑care workers

You can see that in the stories of leaders like Margaret Palmeter, director of the Emera ideaHUB. While working to continue online support for our ideaHUB companies and participants, she stepped up to be one of the university leaders in coordinating our response with Nova Scotia Health. It started right from the beginning and then over time more researchers became engaged through immediate problem-solving roles or by working with the health professionals.

Further reading: How Dal and the Emera ideaHUB stepped up in the face of PPE supply shortages

We have a product-design centre that worked with the hospitals on various COVID adjustments. For example, items the anesthesiologists wanted to protect themselves as they were intubating patients and other technologies for immediate needs. Then we had researchers working with various companies and public health authorities on research issues from scheduling and rescheduling emergency services and operations to the COVID-19 wastewater surveillance work to other safety protocols.

Further reading: Testing the waters: Project to detect COVID‐19 early through wastewater expands across Nova Scotia

It’s reaffirmed my faith and belief in the ability of my colleagues here in the Faculty to use their abilities, to be engineers: to see a problem and create a solution.

What have you missed the most about in-person operations and what are you looking most forward to getting back to when the pandemic is over?

I haven't missed the 45-minute drive to work! All joking aside, it's face-to-face human interaction. It’s such an important part of who we are — we need it — and I think when we talk about screen fatigue and zoom fatigue, I think that's mostly what we're talking about. It's not simply the fatigue with the computer, but it's the lack of that engagement, one on one or in groups, that helps you make the connections with your colleagues.

Any parting thoughts?

First, this has definitely reinforced the connection between engineering and public health and the fact that engineering is about creating solutions for social issues and society. That's where we've stood up and done things.

Next, I think we are going to have challenges finding the new normal. I think there’ll be a lot more consideration of this blend between working at home and working on campuses. And then of course we don't know what the new normal is going to be in terms of public health. While we may be back to in person how long will we wearing masks? I think it's going to be an interesting time finding our new normal but if we could find success during a highly restrictive pandemic, we can certainly find success in the new normal, whatever it’ll be.


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