By Rachel Robertson
Student Clubs Go Remote
Nothing tests a budding engineer’s problem-solving abilities like a real-life challenge, and the COVID-19 pandemic has offered just that for student clubs. Many have risen to the occasion. Some have flourished. But none would deny that it’s been difficult.
Lauren Lippman, a chemical engineering senior and member of the student chapter of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, led a team last spring to compete in AIChE’s Chem-E-Car competition. The team was planning to travel to regionals in Washington in April. They had spent a year of development on their shoebox-sized car, which starts and stops using carefully timed chemical reactions.
Then, the competition was put off indefinitely.
“For spring term, the challenge was that we did not know what was happening,” Lippman said. “We were stagnant, because why take the risk? It was just too difficult to get back into the lab for a competition that we weren’t sure was going to happen.”
When the regional and national competitions were rescheduled for October, the team had a goal to work toward. The College of Engineering approved them to return to the lab with additional precautions, including limitations on the number of people who could be together in a room.
“The struggle is that it conflicts with our goal as a club — to be as diverse and inclusive as possible — to minimize the number of people who get hands-on experience,” Lippman said. “It was a difficult balance.”
Instead of traveling, the team competed in Graf Hall. A team from Montana State University attended remotely. Both teams had judges in attendance, and the cars’ runs were captured on video. Oregon State’s team won with the most powerful start that Lippman has seen in her four years with the club.
Although Lippman missed the opportunity to travel, she says the less intense schedule allowed the team to focus on research and development.
“We have a much more solid jumping off point for our next car than I think we’ve ever had before,” she said.
Meanwhile, competitions for the OSU Robotics Club were canceled, but members are continuing to work, mostly from home, taking advantage of the slower pace to refine projects such as a Mars rover and an underwater remote-operated vehicle.
The OSU Security Club has had fewer difficulties.
“The club is doing its usual thing almost unimpacted by COVID,” said Lyell Read, vice president for the club and undergraduate in computer science.
The team participated in competitions remotely and, for the first time, hosted a public capture the flag competition called DamCTF. Over 1,000 teams registered from all over the world.
Computer science undergraduate Zander Work, who led DamCTF, said the number of participants was higher than expected, and he was most excited about the many first-timers — 14% had never participated in a CTF competition before. The club also initiated weekly CTF learning sessions, in which veteran competitors helped less experienced team members through the security challenges to prepare for competition.
“Despite being all remote, and probably facilitated by being all remote, we were able to succeed at a completely new format of learning for the club, which I think has gone awesomely,” Read said.
Another benefit: Computer science students in the Ecampus program have been able to participate. The OSU Robotics Club has opened up as well, and both clubs hope that will continue once on-campus activities resume.
But many clubs are struggling with recruitment and retention, according to Faaiq Waqar, president of the Engineering Student Council and undergraduate in computer science. The council oversees funding for clubs and has instigated one-on-one meetings with club leaders during the pandemic. Waqar is especially impressed with clubs that launched during the pandemic, such as the Girls’ Empowerment, Engineering, and Outreach Club.
“It’s unusual, because they’ve never existed in a setting that wasn’t remote, and they’ve just really chased those opportunities,” Waqar said. “It’s amazing to see how well they have done in a matter of months.”
The GEEO club hosts events to engage K-12 students in STEM fields. Amy Zhen, co-president of the club and undergraduate in bioengineering, says being remote helped them to reach beyond Corvallis, including girls across Oregon and in Hawaii.
“At the end of an outreach event, a girl told us, ‘I want to be an engineer when I grow up!’” Zhen said. “It was encouraging for our club to hear that we are inspiring young girls. This is exactly why we started the club.”
Zoom fatigue is a complaint for all the clubs. And there is at least one other thing missing.
“Pizza,” Read said. “And much more specifically, the social dynamic around having pizza and getting a lot of people together who are interested in cybersecurity — hanging out and solving challenges.”
Zander Work agrees.
“A lot of crazy ideas came up while eating pizza.”