The past year of remote life has forced USC Viterbi faculty, staff and students to take some
creative approaches to interaction and engagement.(Illustration/Kat Goodloe)

Breaking the Tedium of Faces in Squares

How USC Viterbi faculty and students are adapting to the challenges of remote work

FOR MANY DURING 2020, our working lives, academic lives and social lives began to look a lot like the opening titles of “The Brady Bunch”: a group of faces in small boxes blinking back at us from our screens. The COVID-19 pandemic and strict social distancing requirements have meant that Zoom life rapidly became our new normal.

However, a number of students and faculty at USC Viterbi are trying to move beyond Zoom, reimagining creative methods for managing remote working arrangements.

Thinking Outside the (Project in a) Box
Right about now, the Associated Students of Biomedical Engineering would usually visit schools in the Los Angeles area as part of their extensive program of community outreach. They developed the Project in a Box initiative, a lesson plan for local students from third through sixth grades, introducing them to fun, interactive biomedical engineering projects, like how to build a prosthetic arm using a garbage grabber. It has been a huge success, with ASBME receiving the 2020 national Outstanding Outreach Award from the Biomedical Engineering Society.

But this year threw a global pandemic-shaped wrench into their plans. School closures meant they needed to get creative.

“We had $1,000 sitting in the bank to fund our eight projects for the year, and we couldn’t go into classrooms. Thank God we hadn’t ordered the materials yet,” said Olivia Pereira, ASBME community chair.

The group’s executive board decided to channel their funding into Project on a Screen, a series of YouTube experiments using materials found around the home.

“These were simple science experiments to help them stay busy,” Pereira explained. “We had experiments like elephant toothpaste, which is a chemical reaction in a water bottle, where you add yeast to hydrogen peroxide and dish soap, and it acts as a catalyst and creates a huge foaming reaction.”

Other projects so far have included homemade ice cream, lava lamps, bouncing eggs and testing liquid absorption using food coloring.

Pereira has also worked with the nonprofit Monument Crisis Center to conduct live virtual experiments for children over Zoom, for example, demonstrating how to build circuits and how to model DNA using candy. The ASBME team will continue to expand their Project on a Screen videos as remote life continues.

“It’s been really cool. We’re all biomedical engineers, not film directors or producers, and so it has been a learning process for us, too,” Pereira said. “You can see that our editing gets better as the series goes on!”

Gathering Avatars
For Andrea Armani, the Ray Irani Chair in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, managing a cohort of new students for Freshman Academy posed an interesting challenge. How do you replicate the on-campus experience for new students who can’t meet in person?

Armani was particularly interested in an interactive way of managing small group discussions that did not require the difficult process of setting up multiple breakout meetings on Zoom.

She adopted the web platform Gather, an avatar-driven social space that allows users to build custom characters and meet in a world that they can design to suit their needs. Armani said the format was great for users who may not feel like being on camera, because they can still interact via their avatar and participate in the group.

“On Gather, you have a proximity circle, and you can only talk to people who are standing within it,” Armani explained. “So, in a huge Gather space, you can see everybody on the screen and see where they are, but you can only hear the people in your little circle, which really facilitates having small group discussions.”

Gather also allows breakout spaces and interactive whiteboards for students, as well as a podium where Armani can move her avatar so that her voice is amplified across the breakout discussions. She has also made use of opportunities for guest experts to join the Gather space so that students can talk with them.

“It gives students the kind of freedom that really encourages interaction,” Armani said. “I think it’s so important, especially for a freshman class, to come up with creative ways to get engagement between the students so that they can start building bonds with each other.”

Conducting Experiments from Afar
Electrical and computer engineering is often a hands-on discipline. Allan Weber, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering practice who teaches Introduction to Embedded Systems. and his fellow faculty members at USC have been faced with the challenge of how to replicate labs for students, many of them now scattered across the country and around the world.

At the start of semester, Weber and his colleagues sent out lab kits to some 170 students with about 20 items they needed to do all of their lab assignments. The lab assignments included projects focused on building and programming an electronic combination lock as well as a digital stopwatch. The final assignment tasked students with building a thermostat using a temperature sensor to simulate residential heating and air conditioning units.

“It’s about $70 worth of components in each kit,” Weber said. “The lab assignments all involve doing some wiring on a prototyping board to connect various components together and then writing software to run on the microcontroller board that is part of the kit.”

Weber said that the labs had been going well, in spite of some challenges, including mail delays and the difficulties of helping students debug wiring issues via laptop cameras.

Addressing Global Crises Remotely
It’s a challenge in the best of times to create innovative products that address the world’s most urgent global crises, such as homelessness, hunger and access to health care. During a global pandemic, when these crises are further compounded, how can students design and prototype a physical product when they can’t be together in the one room?

This is exactly what the Silica Soles team faced as they worked to create a product that would reduce the incidence of foot disease among people experiencing homelessness.

Nicholas Nuccio, a junior in the Mork Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and his team created a color-changing silica gel shoe insole that absorbs excess moisture to prevent chronic foot diseases from taking hold. They used silica, the moisture-absorbing material commonly contained in the small sachets that keep our food, medications and other consumer products fresh and dry.

“We believe this product will be of significant benefit to people experiencing homelessness, as they are disproportionately prone to moisture-caused diseases such as athlete’s foot, and rely on their feet as their main mode of transportation,” Nuccio said.

He said it was challenging to create a physical project virtually. With group members based around the country, they needed to call each other on a daily basis.

“One key lesson we learned is that everyone in the group had to buy silica gel and run our own experiments on it — there’s no substitute for hands-on experimenting,” Nuccio said. “But showing each other our prototypes over Zoom allowed us to capture a bit of that experience together.”