A critical open question in the mechanical engineering pedagogical literature is whether Capstone senior design can be taught as effectively online as in-person with emphasis on whether group work conducted under these contrasting conditions is equally effective. The onset of COVID-19 induced a natural experiment enabling comparison of engineering student group work conducted in-person versus all-online.

Group work is an essential element of mechanical engineering education codified by Student Outcome 5 of ABET Criterion 3 (Groupwork). Peer evaluation is a common engineering group work assessment, especially in Capstone design courses. In this paper, recurring peer evaluations are evaluated to quantify how well students performed in groups within a longitudinal study conducted across five semesters of a mechanical engineering Capstone senior design course.

In UF’s Mechanical Engineering Capstone courses, recuring peer evaluation surveys tied to group assignment deadlines were already established prior to COVID-19. By continuing to deploy this same survey when courses transitioned online during the pandemic, three full semesters of group performance data were collected when students were forced to meet remotely. As students returned to campus, the same survey provided comparative data for two semesters when students were meeting in person. These collected data represent a quantitative tool to evaluate how online vs. in-person group meeting setting impacts the quality of teamwork.

This work shows that online vs. in-person meeting environments DID NOT have statistically significant impacts on teamwork performance for mechanical engineering Capstone students in the semesters being evaluated. This result suggests that ABET Criterion 3 Student Outcome 5 can be met just as effectively in online or in-person Capstone courses.

This important result debunks the misconception that the quality and fidelity of Capstone groupwork is somehow diminished when senior design is taught online to learners remote from each other over the Internet. This finding adds to the growing body of evidence supporting the viability of an all-online Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering program capable of receiving and maintaining ABET accreditation. Moreover, a forward-looking online ME program can include an effective Capstone senior design course with rich student groupwork interactions of quality equal to those experienced by students when meeting in-person.

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