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Lab to real life: Mechanical engineering technology instructor Doug Zerr retools hands-on experience for distance learning

Doug Zerr

When faculty on the Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus were tasked with moving all of their classes online for the remainder of the spring semester in response to the coronavirus, or COVID-19, outbreak, Doug Zerr was a little apprehensive about the assignment. An instructor in mechanical engineering technology, two of Zerr’s three classes have a lab component and all are steeped in hands-on learning. Also a graduate of the program in which he is now teaching, Zerr knows firsthand the focus K-State Polytechnic puts on personalized education. 
“I was a face-to-face student and I’m now a face-to-face instructor,” said Zerr. “Figuring out how to do my classes justice in a virtual setting is one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced.” 
Before teaching, Zerr worked for a variety of companies as an engineer; so being a professional problem solver by trade, he knew he had to overcome this dilemma. After getting all of the technology hooked up at his home, Zerr explored the shop in his garage and realized he had relatable materials, tools and equipment to provide students with a comprehensive learning experience. A lightbulb went off – Zerr wanted to take advantage of the home environment that students were in so his classes could go beyond the lab setting at school into real life. 
For his Elements of Mechanisms course, Zerr has asked his students to find examples of mechanisms in their current surroundings and then over video, they have to analyze them for the rest of the class. One of Zerr’s examples was his barbeque grill because the tilting lid consists of a four-bar linkage. He says his students have exhibited items like a desk lamp, car jack and baby jumper.  
In his Materials Strength and Testing course, the focus is on breaking parts in a calculated way. Zerr is filming himself using items in his shop like a torque wrench, vise and 20 ton press with a pressure gauge to show compression failure, tension failure and rotational failure. The series of videos are uploaded in the students’ course management system so they can watch each week and then try their own materials testing.  
In Composites 1, a course in the aviation maintenance management program Zerr teaches, he put together a kit filled with two different types of fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar, and sent them out to his students. With resin the only personal purchase they would need to make, the class had materials in-hand to manipulate.  
“It’s amazing how many examples of engineering are in your daily life, and by asking students to apply our lessons from class to items in their home, we’re connecting the dots,” said Zerr. “Students are looking at the world differently; they’re getting it. I struggled with the idea of distance learning at first, but there is so much benefit coming out of this experience.” 
Zerr arrived at K-State Polytechnic as an instructor only two years ago. He had stayed in touch with members of the mechanical engineering technology program after earning his degree and was hired into a temporary teaching position in 2018 that has since become permanent.  
The majority of Zerr’s career has revolved around composites, primarily in the aviation industry. His interest was first sparked as a student when he got the opportunity to assist the company Scaled Composites in 2005 when they were on the Polytechnic Campus for the launch of the Virgin Atlantic GlobalFlyer. After running a composite shop for a racecar manufacturer and receiving a second degree from K-State Polytechnic in technology management, Zerr worked at Spirit AeroSystems for many years as an engineer in composite materials and composite processes on Airbus, Boeing, Bell and Sikorsky programs. Additionally, he earned a master’s in operations management from Friends University. 
A native of Park, Kansas, Zerr’s curiosity for how things work was shaped by his childhood growing up on a farm and feedlot. Now, Zerr is instilling that same sense of wonder into his students.  
“We can all read a textbook, but when students truly understand what I’ve been teaching and I see the ‘aha’ moment, there is nothing better.”