Francelina Neto image  
(Photograph by Allen Birnbach, courtesy of the California State University Maritime Academy)

 I wish I’d known when the COVID-19 pandemic began that it would last this long and impact us as much as it has. The California State University Maritime Academy does not offer a civil engineering program per se, but many of the classes in our school of engineering are similar.

We differ in that our students are members of a uniformed Corps of Cadets and take certain classes onboard the Training Ship Golden Bear, with programs licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. Since nearly all our license assessments and tests must be conducted in-person, only about 30% of our lectures run virtually.

Generally, our students must reside on campus, though COVID forced us to adapt for safety reasons. To help our cadets maintain social distancing, we assigned just one student per dorm room rather than our usual double occupancy. Due to the rooms’ availability, some students had to reside off campus — which threatened the protective “bubble” that would have existed if everyone had remained on-site.

Classes on the ship and in some labs are run in tight spaces, and it was nearly impossible to socially distance. We relied on masks, hand sanitizers, and other efforts to keep everybody safe. We had to offer more class times, with several running later into the evening to reduce the number of students per section. All our classrooms and labs now have directional arrows on the floor to indicate which doors to enter and leave through. That alone required an immense logistics setup.

Other changes were also required. For example, the normal setup for welding classes placed students working side by side, sometimes even sharing gear. That had to change, of course. We spread them out and purchased new welding helmets, gloves, and other items so every student was assigned their own. Then we purchased new cubbies for them to store their personal equipment in separately. 

For an electronics class and senior projects, we purchased 3D printers for each student so they could work from their dorm or apartment — an investment that will remain useful even after we return to all in-person education.

Though we’ve been forced to sail through some fairly choppy seas, we’re still afloat and managing to stay on course.  

This article first appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as “Wish I’d Known.”