By Paul Alongi
Photography by Josh Wilson

A mechanical engineering professor gets creative with online instruction during the coronavirus crisis

Two mornings a week, Fadi Abdeljawad goes into a nook just off his kitchen, stands in front of his open laptop and teaches a mechanical engineering course to about 30 students who are scattered across the country because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

One wall in the nook is covered in dry-erase paint, converting it to a giant whiteboard where Abeljawad writes equations and diagrams, just as he did when his class met in person in Dillard Hall on campus.

“I constantly ask students, ‘Do you see what I’m writing?’” Abdeljawad says. “They all seem to like it and feel comfortable with it. It mimics classroom teaching.”

The wall-sized whiteboard in Abdeljawad’s home is one of the reasons the assistant professor of mechanical engineering is receiving rave reviews for successfully making the transition to online teaching. Social distancing prevents the class from gathering in person, but Abdeljawad’s creativity, hard work and solid preparation are ensuring the students’ education continues.

With his class, Abdeljawad is joining the ranks of community heroes around the globe who are going above and beyond to do what they can to serve their communities, providing hope in a dark time. His approach has also helped establish a sense of normalcy at a time when the world seems anything but normal.

The idea for the wall came from Abdeljawad’s sister, who works in the tech industry.

Atul Kelkar, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, says Abdeljawad has wholeheartedly embraced the challenge of online teaching: “Dr. Abdeljawad has done an excellent job of making the transition as seamless as possible for his students.”

Trevor Newman, a sophomore, logs in from a picnic table in West Union, South Carolina, where he and his family are staying. He describes Abdeljawad as a teacher who is passionate about mechanical engineering.

“His online class is the closest experience to being physically in the classroom without actually being there,” Newman says. “Dr. Fadi has made the transition easier by communicating effectively about what changes were being made and making sure everything was working for his students.”

Abdeljawad, or “Dr. Fadi” to his students, teaches mechanics of materials (ME 2040), a foundational course for mechanical engineering majors. He decided early on that he was going to continue to hold class live at 8 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the same as before the outbreak.

“Self-control and time management are key to working from home,” Abdeljawad says. “They are not part of the curriculum for most students. I thought if I were to just record all the lectures and let them watch later, it would be a disadvantage to some students. So I decided to keep it live.”

Tanner Muennich, a sophomore who logs in to class from his Clemson apartment, says that live classes allow Abdeljawad to maintain participation.

“You can ask questions whenever you need to,” Muennich says. “It also helps you stay more focused. When you’re in your house or apartment, there are a lot more distractions than in the classroom, and it can be easy to zone out. But knowing that he could call on you makes you pay attention just a little more.”

Sarah Johnson, a sophomore, logs in to the lectures from Jackson, Mississippi, where she is joining her sister in helping relatives, a nurse and a doctor, take care of their two children, who are 2 years old and 6 months old.

“It’s different because, yes, we’re watching it on a laptop, but he is still as equally as excited,” Johnson says. “Overall, it hasn’t been a complete change because he’s doing it exactly as if we were sitting right in front of him.”

Abdeljawad laid the groundwork for the transition long before COVID-19 forced quarantines to prevent its spread. When he first began teaching at Clemson in August 2018, he put his notes into PowerPoint slides to make them easier to share with students. He also typed up the 14 homework assignments that students do each semester, along with the solution keys.

“I have fun [with] everything I do on a daily basis, whether it’s doing research or working closely with students. That was one of the main reasons I moved to academia. I love the interactions with students, both at the research and teaching levels.”

“I had a busy first semester here at Clemson,” Abdeljawad says. “That seems to have worked nicely in prior classes, and it’s paying dividends now. When I made the transition to online teaching and lecturing, I had everything done electronically.”

Abdeljawad converted the wall in his nook to a whiteboard about six months ago. When he isn’t using it for class, it’s a free-expression wall for his daughters, Balkees, 6, and Jenan, 3.

The idea for the wall came from Abdeljawad’s sister, who works in the tech industry. “Apparently, it’s common at tech startups,” he says.

Noor Alnasser, Abdeljawad’s wife, says it’s no problem keeping their daughters occupied while their father is in class. “We love that we’re able to see him teaching because we don’t get the opportunity when he is on campus,” she says. “At this age, they learn from anything. I know for sure it’s a good thing for them.”

One of the biggest challenges in moving to online classes, says Abdeljawad, was picking a web conferencing program that worked for him and his students, some who use Macs and some PCs. Students also have differing browser preferences and varying levels of access to internet connectivity.

Abdeljawad settled on WebEx but also has Zoom as a backup. He had all his students bring their laptops to class on the Tuesday before spring break, when classes were still meeting in person.

“We did a quick dry run of WebEx to make sure everyone had it and that it worked and that all online meeting appointments had been scheduled,” he says.

Abdeljawad also uses WebEx to stay in touch with his research group, which has taken on heightened importance since he received a grant from the Army Research Office Young Investigator Program to study nanocrystalline metallic alloys.

“I meet with my [research] students on Thursdays,” Abdeljawad says. “That’s what I did yesterday — basically back-to-back-to-back WebEx meetings. These are not just general progress meetings. We go into the nuts and bolts of research.”

Abdeljawad attributes his success to an approach he learned in graduate school: “To me, doing science is a hobby, not a job. I have fun [with] everything I do on a daily basis, whether it’s doing research or working closely with students. That was one of the main reasons I moved to academia. I love the interactions with students, both at the research and teaching levels.”

Learn more about the great work Clemson faculty and alumni are doing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Paul Alongi is a technical and features writer for the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences.

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