Remote teaching, with a dash of empathy

Tim Schley
April 07, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The task ahead was daunting: how do you plan and upload an online curriculum worthy of Penn State engineering students in a matter of days? 

“When confronted by a crisis, engineers look at it and say, ‘Let’s define the problem, let’s come up with a solution and let’s get to work,’” said Martin Pietrucha, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “That’s just how this place rolls.” 

Thus, the flurry of emails began as faculty and staff traded ideas. Should you upload full lectures or just clips? What do you do if an online quiz is not working? How do you demonstrate your lab? Are you available to be a guest lecturer? How are you talking to your students about all of this?  

“I have enjoyed watching and interacting with my colleagues who are all trying really hard to adapt quickly,” said Caitlin Grady, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State. “We’re all sharing best practices, asking questions and figuring out what to do as a collective.” 

Grady currently teaches an undergraduate course, CE 360: Fluid Mechanics, and a graduate course, CE 597: Ethics, Engineering, and Environmental Management. For her undergraduates, she has adopted the flipped classroom model of teaching, where she provides them with pre-recorded lectures they can watch on their own prior to class.  

During the regularly scheduled lecture time, Grady organizes a video conference with everyone to discuss the material together in more detail. This discussion, she noted, can be used to assess how everyone in the class is handling the complex transition to remote learning. 

“Their entire environment has been shifted,” Grady said. “My approach has been to acknowledge that and talk openly about it with all my students and discuss what their needs are.” 

“I’ve been working with students here for 30 years, and I’ve seen that they have this incredible inner strength. As we look to the future, we can rest easy."

-Martin Pietrucha, professor of civil and environmental engineering

Grady was quick to note that her empathy also applies to the students on her research team. Recently, Grady was awarded a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to examine where the responsibility falls for managing critical food, energy and water systems, a relevant topic in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Even though her team is able to work from home, Grady doesn’t expect them to sacrifice their well-being for the project. 

“My research productivity is not worth their sacrifice,” Grady said. “If they want to keep working on research because it gives them some structure in their day, then great, I support that. If they need to just focus on their own personal lives, I support that, too.” 

Grady is hardly the only faculty with this empathetic attitude. Pietrucha serves as the undergraduate adviser for the department and understands the pressure this adds to many of his students. 

“Be as forgiving as you can,” Pietrucha said. “We don’t need to throw away standards but be as kind as you possibly can because everyone is struggling with something.” 

Still, Pietrucha is proud of the resilience shown by everyone in the department, especially the students. Most of the questions he has gotten thus far have been relatively mundane in nature: how do their schedules look for the fall semester? 

“I’ve been working with students here for 30 years, and I’ve seen that they have this incredible inner strength,” Pietrucha said. “As we look to the future, we can rest easy. They’re going to go out into the field and do some really great things.”

'We Are' stories

The “We Are” spirit is perhaps more important than ever before, and Penn Staters everywhere are coming together in new and amazing ways. During these challenging times, our community is continuing to realize Penn State’s commitment to excellence through acts of collaboration, thoughtfulness and kindness. As President Eric Barron has written on Digging Deeper, this truly is a “We Are” moment — and we want to hear your “We Are” stories. 

Visit to share how you or other Penn Staters are supporting each other to overcome the collective challenges presented by the novel coronavirus. We are! 


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Last Updated April 23, 2020