Physics experiments are hard to conduct at home – or so you might think. Necessity begets ingenuity. In light of the coronavirus restrictions, TU Berlin provided physics students in its introductory lab course with instructions for experiments at home using common household items: “For instance, we built a spectroscope out of cardboard and DVD foil to refract light like in a prism. We also fastened our smartphone to a toilet paper roll with string and measured its oscillation period using the phone's sensor,” says Lilli Kiessling, a 19-year-old physics student. This was during the first lockdown in the summer when Kiessling took up her studies. In June, the restrictions relaxed, allowing the students to work in small groups in the lab. “That was the first time I entered the University,” says Kiessling, now in her second semester.
However, she found the DIY experiments to be a good substitute: “I thought they worked quite well and were actually more intuitive than when we work with high-tech equipment in the lab. When you build things yourself, you gain a much better understanding of how they work.” Kiessling appreciates that TU Berlin focuses on students truly understanding the material rather than just memorizing it. “It’s a cool concept.” Kiessling, originally from Aachen, spent the start of her studies at home as there were hardly any face-to-face courses at the time: “During the first two months, I did everything from Aachen.” Once an in-person lab course was finally offered, she quickly moved to Berlin, initially finding accommodation in a student dorm.
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Despite the occasional lab visits, the majority of Lilli Kiessling’s studies take place via her laptop. “You sit a great deal in one spot without moving over the course of a day,” she says. “After a while you really start to feel it.” To balance out all the sitting, she made it a habit to do a brief workout between lectures, such as a few push-ups or a short jog. “Exercising really helps,” she says.
Always sitting at home can also take a mental toll. “You never have the sense of being done, because you can’t leave the campus and go home,” she says. Kiessling discusses lectures and homework with fellow students in online study groups. She learned the importance of such groups during the summer semester when she did not yet know very many people at the University: “I had a really difficult math course and was completely lost, I even dreamed about calculating formulas one night,” she shares. Out of frustration, she dropped out of the course. Later while speaking with other students, she learned they had similar problems with the material and it wasn’t just her. “I had no comparison to see how others were getting along. If I had known, I likely wouldn’t have dropped out.” In addition to sharing about their problems, study groups also have the added benefit of students helping each other out: “It is nearly impossible to do some of the homework correctly all by yourself,” she realized.
Kiessling has been able to connect with other students online during the lockdown. However, some appear to have adapted to their digital studies to the extent that they have forgotten how to make small talk: When Lilli and her fellow students were finally allowed to attend a tutorial in person for the first time in mid-November, they all stood in front of the lecture hall staring at their phones without speaking to one another. “I finally said, Hey, we’re on campus together for the first time. Shouldn’t we maybe introduce ourselves? Others slowly joined in and began talking with one another.” Kiessling hopes that this will soon be reality again, “It’s fun to talk about the material. Otherwise it can be a bit dry.”
Noah Grünewald looked forward to studying in Berlin: Campus life, the culture offered by the capital, and the opportunities to get politically involved attracted him to the city. However, the coronavirus pandemic has limited all these opportunities a great deal. “When I’m on campus, I mainly only see security personnel who ask me to present my ID and remind me to disinfect my hands,” says Grünewald, aged 18 and originally from the Bavarian town of Bad Kissingen. “All the images and ideas you have of campus life are still just that, none of it has materialized.” One would expect that as a computer science student, it is easier for Grünewald to study under pandemic conditions compared to other students, as he can complete most of his work from his laptop. Indeed, he enjoys the flexibility and responsibility of creating his own study schedule. Only one of his courses is taking place live. The rest are recordings or exercises to complete independently. “You have to be careful not to let your plan or structure go to the wayside,” says Grünewald. When every day looks the same, it’s easy to lose motivation. “And of the course the temptation of distractions is greater at home.”
To avoid spending all day in front of the computer in Zoom conferences, Grünewald recommends regularly going to campus, even without a specific reason. He himself tries to reserve a study space in the library once a week. “Otherwise I wouldn’t see any part of campus,” he says. He does miss the contact to other students and the instructors though. “It’s not like we can sit in the canteen and chat.” But, there is a silver lining: Due to a mentoring program with experienced computer science students, he was able to meet about a dozen other new students and go on a tour of campus together before the lockdown. “We also formed an online study group that meets once a week to discuss our math lectures,” says Grünewald.
Noah Grünewald finds participation in tutorials especially important as students have a say in the content discussed. From a technical perspective, everything is running smoothly, with the exception of the first few days when the University’s server was overloaded. But course content is not everything: “Interpersonal aspects are also important to learning success,” Grünewald believes. “If I only ever see my lecturers from the waist up, I don’t really learn much about what type of person they are and their personalities.”
Despite the various difficulties, Grünewald is happy to be at TU Berlin as it was his first choice. He comes from a family of computer scientists and engineers and his older brother studied business informatics at the University. This offered the added benefit of having a potential place to stay in the city. He is currently subletting a room in a shared flat until December. He is still looking for a permanent flat, though his search thus far has been unsuccessful. “Due to the pandemic, you aren’t invited to tour a flat or meet potential roommates in person anymore, instead everything is done online,” he says. Unlike other students, he does not want to return home from time to time and study from there online. Grünewald believes the drop-out rate among new students will be high if the current situation persists until spring. “I hope the University is soon able to allow first-year students on campus again.”
A desk instead of the studio: Architecture is a very practical, hands-on degree program. However, Friedrich Zeno Kujus, like everyone else, is completing most of his coursework online. “Normally I would be with 19 other students in a workshop or design studio,” says the 22-year-old, who began studying this year after training as a carpenter and spending a year as a journeyman in Norway. Now, everything is taking place at home, where he is creating designs and building models from glue and balsa wood. On the left side of his desk is his portfolio with the models and on the right, his laptop playing lectures.
It will still be some time before he can go to the University’s workshops. As the hygiene rules only permit a small number of students to be in the workshops at the same time, the introduction to workshop course for first-year students is being held over a number of staggered sessions. Friedrich Kujus’ introduction is not scheduled until 12 December. However, he is not worried about this as he learned how to operate many of the machines during his vocational training. He also does not have to complete the eight-week internship at a building site, a mandatory requirement for TU Berlin architecture students. His fellow students still have time until after the pandemic ends to complete the internship though as it only needs to be completed before the end of their studies.
Kujus, originally from Brandenburg, is currently living with his father in Berlin. He has only come to campus twice so far, including for an orientation event held before the lockdown. Since then, his university days have all looked very similar: “I wake up, make myself a cup of coffee, and then sit down at my laptop for my first lecture at 10:00.”
Meeting new people also works well online: Many anxious students met each other through a YouTube livestream and formed chat groups that quickly grew to 100 members. “I was immediately able to find others with similar interests,” says Kujus. “There are already so many cool people in the groups.” On top of that there are other study groups such as with the representative committees via platforms such as Teamspeak or Discord. There was even a “Zoom bar night” at the start of the semester: The representative committee invited 120 first-year students to an online meeting where they could ask questions and enjoy a beverage of their choice.
“There is now a new way of communicating and sharing,” says Kujus. “A digital campus during the coronavirus pandemic is natural for new students.” While it may not fully replace analog contact, Friedrich Kujus has resolved to the see the positive side of digital studies: “You save time commuting, you can quickly fix yourself something to eat, and your study schedule is more flexible. In some ways, studying is even easier: Lectures can be watched at any time and you can pause and repeat them. Homework is uploaded with the click of a mouse and you can almost entirely structure your time as you like. Studying independently has opened up a whole new perspective,” says Kujus. “I hope TU Berlin continues to develop and explore these digital options even after the lockdown has ended.”