Better to Light a Candle: Chapter Seven—Coping With COVID-19

Editor’s Note: This column is part of a series on the university course in PCB manufacturing at Michigan Technological University (MTU). Marc will chronicle the progress of this class, interview the guest lecturers, introduce the students, etc.

In the first six issues of this column series, I’ve reported on one grass-roots industry/academia collaborative effort to prepare the next generation of PCB “experts.” Individuals and companies from all over the U.S. have been able to come together to pass on PCB experience through a very hands-on design, build, assemble, and test opportunity at MTU.

Based on this prototype effort, now in its second year, we had begun reaching out in earnest, attempting to replicate this success at other “nodes” with similar industry/academia collaborations tailored to local workforce needs, academic capabilities, and resources available. The cascading effects of the exploding COVID-19 pandemic have, as you would expect, forced major changes in the educational experience at MTU (and generally at universities across the country), and put plans elsewhere on hold. Within those limits, and with extraordinary efforts by the students and staff at MTU, the educational experience continues, albeit changed.

In this issue, I’ll outline the ways MTU students, educators, and guest lecturers are coping with the unexpected “remote learning” as the new reality. I’ll also briefly touch on efforts to replicate the MTU “prototype” at other industry/academia “nodes” around the country.

2020 MTU Class Status

State-supported universities across the country have moved to online/distance learning options [1], so variations on the MTU student experience are happening everywhere. I-Connect007 requested that I capture some of the impacts in this specific situation to give our industry members some additional perspectives while they deal with the pandemic in their workplaces.

As a reminder, there are two class portions: a printed circuit seminar series (EE 2230), and a (normally) hands-on printed circuit fabrication portion (EE 2231). Quoting Dr. Middlebrook:

“The hands-on laboratory portion of the PCB course moved to virtual instruction. While we recognized that we would not be able to continue the hands-on portion of the laboratory, we didn't want the students to miss out on the processing steps and experience of the remaining labs. We [Dr. Middlebrook and his teaching assistants] moved quickly during the week after spring break to video all of the remaining lab portions. The videos were edited and annotated. The students are required to watch the videos in performing the lab virtually. With the hand processing that is performed, the students will still gain insight into the physical process in which to create a printed circuit. Students will also read and follow through the procedures and have to complete enhanced post-lab assignments that deepen their knowledge. The videos will be a great resource in the future as they will be made available to students before they begin a particular lab module. Students from the course will be welcome to finish their prototypes when things are back to somewhat normal.”

Current Schedule

Subject-matter expert guest lecturers have stepped up to help fill gaps as these new circumstances and health issues forced rearrangement. The most current calendar of guest lectures for the 2020 MTU classes were converted to remote sessions is as follows (this list includes session changes starting in March through the end of the semester):

  • March 2: Solderable finishes, John Swanson, MacDermid Alpha
  • March 4: Flexible hybrid electronics/3D-printed electronics, Girish Wable, Jabil Inc.
  • March 6: Microvia reliability, Audra Thurston/Lee Mayra, Calumet Electronics
  • March 16: Electronic failure-mode analysis, Kirk van Dreel, Plexus
  • March 18: Assembly process design and optimization, Kirk van Dreel, Plexus
  • March 20: Process controls: General concepts, goals, and objectives, David Sullivan, Printed Circuit Solutions
  • March 23: Design considerations: Design for solvability, Mike Creeden, Insulectro
  • March 25: Design considerations: Design for manufacturability, Mike Creeden, Insulectro
  • March 27: Design considerations: Design for reliability, Mike Creeden, Insulectro
  • March 30: Final finishes (plating with and without electricity), George Milad, Uyemura
  • April 1: Process control: Practical applications of SPC, CpK, etc., David Sullivan, Printed Circuit Solutions
  • April 3: Mid-year class review session, Dr. Chris Middlebrook, MTU
  • April 6: Flex and rigid-flex technology, Lee Mayra, Calumet Electronics
  • April 8: Smart factory and Industry 4.0, Happy Holden, I-Connect007
  • April 10: Future electronic technologies, Happy Holden, I-Connect007
  • April 13: Basic skills for engineers: Problem-solving, DoE, FMEA, and business planning, Happy Holden, I-Connect007
  • April 15: PCB material choices, Trey Adams, Insulectro
  • April 17: Industry standards: Just another manufacturing tool, Marc Carter, Aeromarc LLC
  • April 20: Process troubleshooting, Mike Carano, RBP Chemical
  • April 22: Class review, project presentations, etc., Dr. Chris Middlebrook, MTU
  • April 24: Class review, project presentations, etc., Dr. Chris Middlebrook, MTU

Student Feedback

We asked the students to provide feedback on how these changes have impacted the educational experience in this (and other classes), giving them some discussion-starting questions to help focus the response.

Here are the questions they were given:

  1. If you rated all your classes from 1 (not effective at all in these remote-only times) to 10 (not much affected at all by going remote), what’s the average, and how do EE2230/2231 rank in that order? Please expand on your answer.
  2. Within this class, what parts still work pretty well, and what has been worst affected? Please explain.
  3. Originally, about 2/3 of the guest lectures were to be given on-site. How much (in a percentage) does “remote” detract from the effectiveness of the expert guest lectures, for you, personally? What (if anything) can we do to reduce that effect, given the circumstances?
  4. Some students last year spoke pretty highly of the hands-on aspects of this class (design, build, assemble, and test your own multilayer circuit board yourself) compared to the average MTU class. Would you say that hands-on aspect of the class was more than or less than half the benefit you hoped to get from this class?
  5. What can we do to improve your ability/willingness to interact with the guest lecturers?
  6. Any other comments or suggestions?

Two of the students agreed for their responses to be published here (student names omitted for privacy reasons and edited slightly for clarity).

Junior: Electrical Engineering Major

  1. I would rate the seminar portion (EE2230) an 8.5/10. The information being presented is more or less unchanged. I took half a point off for disruption to communication from audio/video quality issues and one point off because the online format seems to dissuade Q&A and discussions that are more prevalent in face-to-face seminars. I would rate the lab portion (EE2231) a 7/10. Professor Middlebrook and the TAs have done a great job of presenting the lab material via video. However, not being able to use the equipment myself takes away from the overall experience, especially since I am a very hands-on learner.
  2. As I mentioned previously, the seminar portion still works fairly well. The speakers and topics are unchanged, so the interface is the only difference. The video conferencing software has been working well, aside from a few minor technical hiccups. Similarly, the lab material is still presented. We can still follow all the steps in the process and learn how different changes in each step can create changes in other parts. The most affected parts are the decrease in discussion in the online lectures and not being able to use the lab equipment myself.
  3. The "remote" interface detracts probably 10–15% from the effectiveness of the lecture for me—the biggest detractor being the reduced interaction between the students and the lecturer. I have a couple of ideas to help improve this. Encourage questions/interruptions at the beginning of the lecture. I have noticed that lecturers that do this tend to get a few more questions than those that don't. If the lecturer asks questions to the audience, that could also help. This may not fit in everyone's style of presentation, but if it does, it could be worth a shot. That said, I have rarely seen a presenter do this, so I don't know for sure if it would work consistently. But, the times that I have seen it, they always got answers. The biggest thing that I miss is the ability to talk to the lecturer in person after the lecture. I'm not really sure how to fix this one—especially since I haven't messed around with the video conferencing software much—but perhaps someone else has an idea.
  4. As a hands-on learner, I was definitely looking forward to the hands-on aspect. However, as I attended the seminars, I found that I was learning lots of cool, useful information from them. At that point, it switched to being 2/3 in favor of the seminar portion. Not to say that the lab was worse or decreased in value (I still really enjoyed it), but the seminar turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting.
  5. Again, interaction is the biggest missing portion of online seminars.
  6. Thanks for your flexibility to continue giving the lectures remotely. I really appreciate it!

Senior: Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering Major

  1. I would rank my other classes as a 3, with PCB being a 6. I found my lectures to be lacking in feedback and harder to grasp the information since it is all done over video. EE2230 does not have too big of a shift due to the seminar already being on Zoom.
  2. The seminar portion of the class is still working pretty well. The only part is the lab portion of the class because I cannot get hands-on experience with manufacturing a PCB.
  3. The remote aspect of the class does cause some mild distractions. Since I am sitting in front of my computer, I easily get distracted with notifications with my email or canvas.
  4. The hands-on experience was one of the most enticing parts of this class. I was also looking forward to learning about the manufacturing processes that go into making them.
  5. I think the guest lectures are going pretty well.

Establishing Classes Elsewhere

In preparation for this column, I reached out to the key players in several of the industry/academia “nodes” we’re trying to develop around the country. They all replied that demand had multiplied (variously 2x to 4x) and are trying to accommodate this demand in the face of the pandemic hurdles; many hope get back to those interested after things have eased. I’ll keep you posted on progress.

For further information, you can reach Dr. Chris Middlebrook at or me at


  1. L. Altavena, “Tracking college closures: U.S. colleges closing, going online due to coronavirus,” AZ Central, March 10, 2020.

Marc Carter has worked in the electronics interconnection industry since 1984 in a variety of roles in fabrication and assembly materials, processes, environmental compliance, and supply chain management activities around the world. He has had the honor and privilege of working with and learning from many of the true giants of this industry in multiple functions over many years. His experience includes a major milaero OEM, field and development work at materials suppliers to the printed circuit industry, and an educational stint as the sole proprietor of a manufacturer’s agency representing multiple high-tech milaero material suppliers.



Better to Light a Candle: Chapter Seven—Coping With COVID-19


The cascading effects of the exploding COVID-19 pandemic have, as you’d expect, forced major changes in the educational experience at MTU (and generally at universities across the country), and put plans elsewhere on hold. Marc Carter outlines the ways MTU students, educators, and guest lecturers are coping with the unexpected “remote learning” as the new reality.

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