By Kristen Mitchell
Erica Gralla, associate professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, typically relies on hands-on learning to introduce her students to the manufacturing supply chain’s inherent challenges. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to rethink her Fundamentals of Systems Engineering course, she turned to an online game known for building and exploring new worlds.
Students in Dr. Gralla’s sophomore-level course this semester learned how to improve airplane manufacturing processes using Minecraft, a replication of a traditional lab project for the virtual environment. During an in-person semester, students work in groups to construct airplanes out of Legos, with students assigned to different parts of the supply chain. One student acts as the supplier and pulls necessary Legos out of a bin, while another is tasked with transporting them to a classroom table—the “manufacturing plant” where a team of students assemble the pieces to make airplanes.
Using Minecraft, Dr. Gralla took this experience into the virtual environment. Instead of physical Legos, students constructed the planes in a virtual manufacturing facility designed for the class. Long walks down virtual hallways simulated transporting parts, and as students figured out ways to streamline workflow, they were able to scale up manufacturing to build planes more efficiently. Dr. Gralla worked with Hugh McManus from Northeastern University and several students to create the virtual version of the original simulation.
“The point is to learn about the manufacturing process and how to improve processes to make them more efficient,” said Dr. Gralla, an expert in operations and supply chain management in disaster response and other urgent or uncertain environments. “We want them to understand the importance of balancing the work for an efficient system. In Minecraft, they could see and even experience areas where the process is slow or inefficient, then determine how to reallocate work.”
Group projects have always been an important aspect of this course, Dr. Gralla said, since it evolved from a first-year course taught by Zoe Szajnfarber, EMSE department chair. She was eager to find a way for students to continue to build connections with their peers during a time when many are missing in-person interaction.
Saachi Mehrotra, a junior majoring in systems engineering, said she appreciated the opportunity to work closely with her classmates.
“Working on a group project throughout the course of the semester definitely helps build that sense of community that is especially hard to build virtually,” she said. “That really helped me get to know people in my major, get to know how other people worked, and in my experience it definitely helped bring people together.”
Prior to this semester Ms. Mehrotra had never used Minecraft. Learning how to build something new and work with a team virtually within the game was a rewarding experience, she said.
Amelia Jacquat, a sophomore majoring in systems engineering, said the course gave her a chance to make connections with peers she hadn’t met before this semester. The Minecraft project and other group work kept her excited about her studies during a time when “Zoom fatigue” is rampant.
“Professor Gralla has done a great job of making sure we’re engaged with the class,” Ms. Jacquat said. “It was a very interactive class in the sense that she wanted everybody to participate and ask questions.”
Studying the COVID-19 Pandemic
This semester Dr. Gralla also taught a graduate-level course that examined the COVID-19 pandemic from a systems engineering perspective. The pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and international policy decisions, presenting new hurdles for nearly every aspect of industry and society. The pandemic inspired Dr. Gralla and her colleagues in the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering to design a course with an increased focus on supporting the operational and policy decisions that take precedence in uncertain times.
“We wanted to connect these engineering skills and techniques to the decisions that are being made, and when COVID-19 appeared it was so clear this was going to be the dominating concern for a while,” she said. “We wanted to hurry up and get that class put together so that it can be about something very current and very important and very relevant.”
The course included guest lectures from various members of the department, who all had different perspectives on the pandemic’s impact on their area of study. As part of their capstone project, students were asked to focus on a specific theme, such as supply chain, misinformation, or predicting the spread of COVID-19. They identified a specific challenge, analyzed it and provided policy recommendations for addressing it in a virtual presentation to their classmates.
Dr. Gralla hopes to continue teaching the course in the future about “other current and important issues.”