Virtual engineering expo falls short of some student’s expectations

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Dalia Maeroff | Senior Staff Photographer

The Swanson School of Engineering hosted its first ever virtual design expo last semester on Nov. 23.

By Nathan Fitchett, Senior Staff Writer

Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering’s annual Design Exposition is usually an opportunity for upperclassman engineering students to show off their work from the semester and make connections with industry professionals. But after the expo was moved online last semester, some students, like Jon Perlman, were left feeling disappointed with how the virtual event was executed.

It was rough. Lots of lag. Guests and judges had trouble navigating the rooms and layout,” Perlman, a senior mechanical engineering major, said. “Most people that we interacted with either couldn’t hear us or we couldn’t hear them. People in the chat had mentioned they were leaving because of how bad it was.”

The Swanson School of Engineering hosted its first virtual design expo last semester on Nov. 23. The event has historically been held in person at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, the event was forced to move online. At previous years’ events, engineering students would line the hall with their projects to show off their hard work from the semester and display them to judges from the engineering industry.

Dan Quiroga, a senior mechanical engineering major, said in past years the event would draw in a large number of students showing off their projects.

“You would walk in, and as far as your eye could see there would be presentations organized by different departments,” Quiroga said. “It was really cool because you’d just get to walk up and ask whatever question you had, you could read the information on your own, and engage with 10 to 100 different projects.”

In order to follow COVID-19 protocol, the event was held virtually using a conference program called Accelevents. Each presentation group would sit and wait in their own breakout room for judges to enter so they could demonstrate their projects.

Ashley Zagari, a senior mechanical engineering major, said the program and the lack of training given to students on how to use it caused a lot of the problems with the event.

“I think that was honestly the biggest issue in all of this actually,” Zagari said “Only three days before the actual expo did we find out that we were actually using the Accelevents software. I went to the training for the software on the day of the expo.”

Perlman also said he was unsure as to why the event did not use a program like Zoom, which students and judges were most likely already familiar with.

I think using a platform that most people are used to would’ve helped, because most of the guests had no idea how to use this software, and the students only had one training session a week before,” Perlman said. “I’m very confused as to why they didn’t use Zoom or break the conference into different days.”

Paul Kovach, director of marketing and communication for Swanson, said the decision to choose Accelevents was made for a number of different reasons.

First, it was selected last year by the University as the professional events platform for free-to-the-public events,” Kovach said. “Second, the maximum number of breakout rooms in Zoom is 50 while our Design Expo includes up to 100 projects. Lastly, Accelevents also offered the capability for people who logged in a little late to watch the presentation from the beginning.”

Kovach also said judges and presenters were given multiple opportunities to attend training for the Accelevents software the week before the event.

In years past, the expo brought in engineering industry professionals to judge the event and allow students to make connections to start their careers. Zagari said with how the event was run this year, students didn’t get to fully take advantage of that opportunity.

“For a lot of engineering students it’s a pretty big deal because you’re getting your first real chance to interact with all these different companies and all these different people from the industry,” Zagari said. “I feel like we really didn’t get a chance to make a good impression with them.”

Kovach said transitioning the event online proved difficult for Swanson last semester.
“With events there is always a learning curve, and somewhat more so with a virtual event,” Kovach said. “Since we launched the Design Expo in 2014, our planning team has built upon the previous event to make each successful. Transforming such a large event to a virtual platform is a challenge for everyone — students, faculty and staff alike — and it will never replace the energy of our in-person event.” 

Perlman said he thinks the engagement with this year’s event was much lower than in previous expos.

“I did not see many guests at this event, and this is an event where students usually network and meet people in the industry, and Pitt in my opinion really fell flat on this end,” Perlman said. “My two groups as well as other groups can tell you that they probably only talked to around two to five people, and when I went to this event as a freshman my team talked to well over 50 people if not more.”

Despite low engagement and technological issues, some students like Quiroga thought Pitt did the best they could in spite of the circumstances. He said he was satisfied that the event even happened at all this year.

“During COVID times, it would have made more sense to cancel it completely from a logistics standpoint,” Quiroga said. “So the fact that we were able to put something on, where we were able to engage with people on our projects, even if it was a little bit forced, we were able to replicate it. I think they did as best they possibly could have.”

Kovach said Swanson recognizes that there were some issues with how the event ran last semester, and they hope to make improvements in the event that the next one has to take place virtually.
We did experience technical and organizational issues and we learned from the mistakes, and we do sincerely apologize to the students and faculty who were displeased by the experience,” Kovach said. “We know how important this event has become especially for our graduating seniors, and so we respect those feelings both professionally and personally. Our Design Expo staff, led by our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, is of course committed to improve our 2021 Spring Design Expo and employ better training protocols for students and judges.”
Perlman said he felt the event seemed like it was planned somewhat last-minute.
“They had the whole summer to plan, and it seemed very rushed,” Perlman said. “Students were asked to complete projects at essentially the same level, and as engineers we should be rising up to occasions and solving hard problems.

Kovach said Swanson began prepping for the event in September 2020.

Although Perlman said he understands the challenges of putting on an event like this during COVID-19, he said he expected Pitt to put forth more effort.
We all know it’s hard times, but we are all paying tuition and working hard to get a degree and represent the school in a good way,” Perlman said. “We just wanted to see a little more, especially when this event directly impacts our careers.”

Kovach said he hopes next year’s expo will run more smoothly and will be in-person.
“With the coronavirus vaccine slowly rolling out, we are hopeful that we will be able to return to an in-person event in the future while still providing an enhanced virtual component for those who cannot attend,” Kovach said.

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