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Faculty Spotlight: Jessica Sparks

Jessica Sparks, who teaches in Chemical, Paper & Biomedical Engineering, transformed her face-to-face course into a fully online, compressed Winter Term course. | Video by Benjamin Hartman

By Benjamin Kitchen

All students face pressures, and that's no different for hopeful engineers. By the time first-year students take their first engineering course in the spring semester, they are often juggling it with calculus, chemistry, and physics.

Dr. Jessica Sparks, a Professor in Chemical, Paper, and Biomedical Engineering, saw the need and opportunity to transform CPB 102 (Introduction to Chemical and Bioengineering) from a face-to-face course to an online course that first-year students could take during the J-term.

Of course, the engineering professor mulled over questions and faced challenges. How do you take a collaborative, semester-long course and turn it into a fully-online, compressed J-term course? "I had to change the sequence and repackage things into different modules," Dr. Sparks recalled. "I really had to think carefully about how to organize the content."

It was communication and connectivity that Dr. Sparks considered the most. "I spent more time thinking about [...] a student somewhere alone, working on their computer, trying to learn this content," she said. "I wanted to make sure they didn't feel alone." Sparks was pleased that she could still build rapport with her students by building in feedback mechanisms.

Dr. Sparks was also able to recreate the interactivity of collaborative labwork by pairing discussion boards with every assignment. "Engineers need to solve problems together," according to the professor.

The students seemed to enjoy the overall course. "Some of them sent me emails partway through the course, just saying 'this is great, I'm having a great time,'" enthused Professor Sparks. The feedback wasn't anonymous, she noted with a laugh, "so maybe it doesn't count."

The transformation and teaching of an online course was ultimately a positive experience for Dr. Jessica Sparks. "On the whole, it was a success," she said.