Pratt Student Organizations: Resilience During COVID-19

April 1, 2021 | Woodley Burrow

Despite the pandemic, Pratt student organizations find ways to continue to provide enriching experiences to its members

A hanging bridge over a river in a mountainous jungle area

A footbridge built in Bolivia by DEID in 2019.

Logging into a Zoom meeting is now part of our everyday routine. Instead of walking to class, we click a few buttons, and then we find ourselves in remote classes and meetings. This shift to the remote sphere did not happen effortlessly. Students and professors alike gradually learned how to administer work and projects from a distance.

Engineering students especially had to adjust to this remote environment. Typically, projects involve iterating on a physical product, but in the midst of COVID, meeting in person to jointly work on a project has often been infeasible or impossible. Through stories from some of the student organizations in the Pratt School of Engineering, we can see how students have both struggled and succeeded in transitioning to the remote environment.

Duke Engineers for International Development (DEID) focuses on infrastructure projects throughout the world. In the summer of 2019, the organization constructed a footbridge in Bolivia and a vehicular bridge in Uganda. In 2020, the team was slated to construct another footbridge in Bolivia while also participating in a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH)  project in Indonesia.

A large construction machine in a field in a jungleHowever, following the outbreak of COVID-19, implementation trips for the summer of 2020 were canceled. According to DEID co-President Mia de Leon, a senior in BME, COVID altered club operations significantly. Canceling the implementation trips left 25 club members to find new summer plans. While the cancellation could have resulted in a stagnant summer for DEID, de Leon and fellow co-President Kieryn Ota, a senior studying biomedical engineering as well as electrical and computer engineering, decided to take a critical look at DEID’s operations.

While DEID has been successful in carrying out infrastructure projects, de Leon and Ota recognized that DEID could achieve more by engaging students on-campus and by maintaining meaningful relationships with partner communities. After considerable planning that took place over the summer, DEID managed to rethink its programming.

DEID successfully hosted multiple speakers, covering topics such as COVID-19, global infrastructure and project ethics. DEID also continued to have project meetings for their various projects, preparing students for the scenario in which travel is feasible by the summer of 2021. By leaning into the educational component of the projects, DEID has been able to meaningfully engage its members, even in an unusual semester.

Masked students working over a work benchThe Duke Motorsports team also endured a drastic change of plans following the COVID-19 outbreak. The team’s main objective is to compete in the nationwide Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) competition, in which teams from many universities race the vehicles they have been assembling throughout the year. The 2020 competition, which should have occurred in June, was canceled, and an on-line presentation event took place instead. Edgar Uribe, senior mechanical engineering student and leader of Duke Motorsports, described how the pandemic has restricted the team. In the past, Duke Motorsports members would spend hours together in the garage, collaboratively resolving design issues late into the night. But due to COVID-19, Duke Motorsports is only permitting four students to work together at the same time.

A student sitting in a racecar with a helmet onAccording to Edgar, this reduced amount of people has challenged the team, but has also allowed for more organized work. This semester has offered Duke Motorsports a unique opportunity to dive deeper into validating their design. In remote environments, students are spending more time looking at simulations and models. As a result, the team has a stronger understanding of the design, and they feel more confident that they are making correct design decisions. This opportunity to focus on theory and design is raising the knowledge base of the team members, and therefore preparing the team for success moving forward.

Student organizations throughout Pratt have had to handle similar struggles. Canceled plans, canceled projects and remote work have disrupted everyone. However, rather than pause organization operations, Pratt students have looked to improve their projects. These organizations have even innovated by making project teams accessible to remote students.

Most importantly, Pratt students have taken opportunities to develop parts of their projects that were undeveloped before. DEID implemented a new speaker series, Motorsports evaluated their design to a greater degree and the many other organizations of Pratt have responded in similar ways. The resilience demonstrated by Pratt organizations reflects the hard work and consideration provided by student leaders during 2020. These innovative and impressive efforts have set student organizations up for continued success in 2021.

Woodley Burrow is a junior from Houston, Texas studying mechanical engineering.