Student Project Teams Adjusted and Thrived Despite Pandemic Challenges

Members of the 2020 ChemE Car team in an Olin Hall hallway

Engineering is an iterative process, with designs evolving in response to new information. To be successful, engineers must be able to respond to changing conditions with speed, flexibility, and creativity. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Cornell Engineering Student Project Team members have demonstrated the agility and resilience – as well as the care for their team members – that will enable them to flourish in their engineering careers, as well as other paths they may follow.

“I was absolutely amazed by what these teams were able to do in such a challenging set of circumstances,” said Lauren Stulgis, the Swanson Director of Student Project Teams. “I really thought that the best we could hope for with the teams would be that they manage to productively tread water and then be ready to hit the ground running when we were able to fully reopen campus.”

Entirely led and run by undergraduates, project teams dedicate significant time to collaboratively solving complex problems, often as part of a national or international competition. All told, there are more than 30 teams with a combined total of over 1,300 students, and they did much more than tread water during the pandemic. In spite of severely limited access to team spaces, scattered memberships, and drastically altered — even canceled — competitions, many of them managed to thrive.

As March 2020 turned to April, with no end to the global crisis in sight, team leaders first brainstormed how to take their particular projects into the virtual realm. Then when summer arrived, and Cornell started reopening some indoor spaces for research, teams began to formulate detailed plans allowing limited numbers of students back into team spaces to work on their projects.

That summer and fall, Judson Freidl ’21 was senior captain of the ChemE Car team, a roughly 50-member group that builds and races model cars operated entirely by chemical reactions.

To gain approval from the University, Freidl said building access plans had to be extremely detailed, requiring close collaboration with the Robert Frederick Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. “Being able to get back into the building was really only possible because we worked hand-in-hand with the department and with our advisor, Professor Abraham Stroock,” he said. “We had to create a formal reactivation plan and get many different people to sign off on it. I learned a lot about current COVID research and how we would need to space ourselves out be as safe as possible.”

The members of Cornell’s iGEM synthetic biology project team, which redesigns and repurposes elements from the biological world to achieve a predetermined goal, took a different approach to work during COVID. They decided to take what has always been a real-world bioengineering project and turn it into one based solely on computer modeling for the 2020 competition.

iGEM project team's Lumicure logo

The iGEM competition differs from many of the other project team competitions in that, rather than all teams worldwide working on the exact same challenge, teams propose their own projects. As the COVID lockdown commenced, the iGEM team had not yet chosen a project to propose. When they were able to gather over Zoom and decide what to do, they created a project called Lumicure, which is a cancer bacteriotherapy system housed within engineered E. coli cells. Current Wet Lab team leaders Margaret Keymakh and Deniz Sinar were first-year team members at the time.

“Our team is a bioengineering team,” Keymakh said. “Typically, most of our work is done in the wet lab. Not having that option available was a huge setback. We didn’t know how we were going to be able to accomplish anything. But once we decided to make it a modeling project, it all fell into place.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean it was all easy. “Once we decided to do our entire project based on modeling our system rather than going into the lab and actually doing experiments, running tests, and collecting data,” Sinar explained, “it became clear that the whole team would have to learn a new way of doing things.”

Both Keymakh and Sinar feel the experience, even the process of teaching themselves how to use simulation software like MATLAB,  brought the entire team closer together. “I didn’t expect to be able to get close to people in the virtual format,” Keymakh said. “But we were on Zoom a lot and had long calls to troubleshoot, and it turned into such a bonding experience. We came out of last summer with a lot of close friendships, and it was great to continue those relationships on campus back in the fall.”

There was no possible way for the Cornell Baja Racing Team to move all of their work online. The team designs, builds and races an off-road vehicle to compete in the SAE Collegiate Baja Design Series, and their motto is “Design. Build. Race.” Only one of those three imperatives can happen over Zoom.

When the campus closed, Cornell’s Baja Racing team had an unfinished car and no real way to work on it, since access to their space was shut down. The in-person competition in the spring of 2020 was canceled, but Duff Klaber ’21 and his fellow Baja team leaders for the 2020-2021 academic year  immediately started working with Stulgis, the Project Teams director, to figure out how to get people back into their space to begin work on the car they would use in 2021.

“It helped tremendously that we have a lot of passionate team members who were willing to work on their own as much as possible during the spring and summer of 2020,” Klaber said. “They kept us on track as much as they were able without having access to the space.”

Cornell's Baja car in actionMeanwhile, Klaber, Kenneth Cheung ‘21, and Tanner Hallett ‘21 spent much of the summer figuring out how many hours it would take to build a car so that they could make best use of the space when some of them were able to return.

“We had never really had to evaluate that before, but we did the best we could,” Klaber said. “And then we formed small pods of teammates in a way we hoped would ensure that everything could get done relatively efficiently. The true bottom line on why we were able to actually get it all done — even with the severe restrictions on who could work when —was that we had committed, passionate, knowledgeable members who were able to push through, even though much more of the work than usual fell onto individuals rather than groups. People rose to the challenge.”

ChemE Car, iGEM, and Baja Racing all found the 2020-2021 academic year challenging, but all three teams also experienced great success. In April 2021, the Cornell ChemE car — named “Fully Charged” — won the Northeast Regional competition and qualified the team for this fall’s international competition. Cornell iGEM’s Lumicure entry was awarded a Gold Medal in the 2020-21 international competition. The Baja team qualified for the national competition and, with support from Engineering Dean Lynden Archer and University Provost Michael Kotlikoff, they secured approval from the University Committee on Travel and Visitors to go the May 2021 event in Louisville, Kentucky, where they finished sixth out of more than 80 teams.

A clear thread emerges from conversations with Stulgis and team leaders from the student project teams at Cornell: While the past 18 months were very hard, teams found success by being creative and caring problem-solvers. When asked to sum up how all the project teams — not  just ChemE Car, iGem, and Baja — have performed throughout this uniquely challenging period in global history, Stulgis answered simply with a big smile, “They rocked!”

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