Today’s class will be held in your bathtub and will include a funnel and flexible, plastic tubing.

“And you will probably get wet,” said Sasha McLarty, assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

As the pandemic has worn on, most of us, whether students, faculty, and staff, have suffered a variety of hardships — from real loss and economic stress to simpler loneliness or boredom. We’re all tired of Zoom, and we long to be back to normal with our classmates and friends in a regular lab class.

In the category of silver linings, the pandemic has offered some new and unique learning experiences that generations of students haven’t had.

Exhibit A is McLarty’s senior-level hydraulics engineering laboratory class, an elective course in civil engineering. As she prepared to teach the class this semester, McLarty wanted to find a way for students to experience the unique type of hands-on experience that the WSU class normally provides.

Student performs hydrology experiment in the bathtub.
Engineering student Luis Pimentel performs a hydrology experiment in the bathtub.

“I love teaching this class because it’s so hands-on — it is an entire class to make fluid mechanics and open channel hydrology come alive,” she said. “I don’t know of other institutions that have this type of class for this topic, and I love that. To be in a lab and to hear water moving and to get splashed is really exciting and different.”

Faced with the challenge of teaching the course and wanting to provide a safe and meaningful learning experience, McLarty over the holidays began looking online for possible hydrology kits to send to the 13 students in her class. Not finding any, she began brainstorming ideas for cheap, at-home lab kits with her colleagues, including Natalia Drumm, civil engineering lab technician; Dustin McLarty, her husband and an assistant professor in Mechanical and Materials Engineering; and even her mother, who has a PhD in civil engineering.

“It was an all-hands-on-deck brainstorming,” she said.

In the course, the students learn key concepts in hydrology and hydraulics through several experiments. They study how water behaves in a pipe and observe its movement through open channels, using large hydraulic flumes located in the basement of Sloan Hall. In the hydrology unit, they observe rain and measure runoff during different storm events in a hydrology apparatus in the lab.

With funding support from WSU’s Provost’s Office, the Fed Ex package that McLarty put together is a mini-hydrology class in a box, including items such as a funnel, duct tape, plastic cups, fake lawn turf, pebbles, plastic tubing, a thermometer, and measuring tape.  She added extra duct tape and zip ties, so that students can make their own adjustments as needed.

Engineering student Lacy Lackey performs a hydrology experiment in the sink.

She is most excited about the flume that the team developed, using gutter downspouts purchased at a local hardware store. With support from WSU’s engineering shops, the team removed the gutter top to create a “lovely” open, rectangular channel. The channel was cut into sections. The team added a little gate, using a metal sheet and paper clips, that will be used to study downstream flow conditions. The students will use duct tape to install small weirs in their channels.

Another “Eureka” moment came when she spotted a funnel among her young daughter’s toys – perfect to help the students move water from the tub into their plastic pipes. She also checked to make sure all students had a bathtub.

“We didn’t want an overflowing kitchen sink,” she said.

McLarty admits that the kits don’t look too fancy.

“They won’t win any awards for sleekness, but they do what we need them to do,” she said. “They get the learning concepts across in hopefully a fun setting.”

The home kits are going to provide students with a truly unique opportunity for learning. She hopes that the students can involve their roommates or family members in the experiments.

The students are also going to have the valuable experience of setting up their own experiments at home and then comparing their set-ups and results with their classmates.

The Fed Ex package that McLarty put together is a mini-hydrology class in a box, including items such as a funnel, duct tape, plastic cups, fake lawn turf, pebbles, plastic tubing, a thermometer, and measuring tape.

“This gives each student their own hands-on experience,” she said. “From start to finish, the visual of the lab is a different experience for the students, and that’s really exciting.”

McLarty was one of about 20 faculty members in the Voiland College who received support for remote delivery of classes for the spring semester. Geotechnical course students received sieves to classify soils, while highway materials students received a lunch bag that includes aggregates, asphalt and cement for students to practice mixing asphalt concrete and cement at home. Faculty also received support to purchase tablets, microphones, or video software to create higher quality videos for their courses.

McLarty, who is the granddaughter of former WSU hydrology professor, Eugene Richey, fondly remembers the fun she had as a child watching the hydrology labs he created of dams and wave pools – a joy she hopes she’s passing along.

“It’s been really fun to put it together and to see the excitement on the students’ faces,” said McLarty. “We’re really working to make something fun for them.”