Teaching online – OMG!

Some months ago I was approached by staff from the UCLA Extension Engineering & Technology to teach plumbing design online classes. Some of you already know that UCLA Extension received the Kenneth G. Wentink Award of Excellence at the 2014 Convention for their achievements in helping educate plumbing designers through the Advanced Plumbing Systems Design Certificate.

This offer came about through a referral from a local plumbing professional, Laura Biggie, senior plumbing inspector and training officer with the Los Angeles Department of Buildings and Safety. Laura took on the responsibility of teaching Plumbing Systems I: Code and Engineering Fundamentals. She referred me to UCLA for the PS II & III courses. I was flattered that UCLA wanted me to teach, but I balked at the idea, as I knew I did not have enough time available between work, family and everything else to do the job properly. I have taught before for the NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies, so I know what is required to create a new class from scratch, let alone the time required to teach it. Plus there was the complicating fact that the class would be taught online—something I have never done before. That might make it easier, but it could make it harder.

As the PS I classes got underway, I got a call from Laura asking me if I would be her guest lecturer for Chapter 6 of the Code, specifically water pipe sizing. Laura’s skills are in Code knowledge. Her work requires that she teach Code to new LA City Plumbing Inspectors nearly every day, and she knows her stuff. But Chapter 6 of the UPC (as well as Chapter 6 of the IPC and its Addenda) is quite technical in nature, granting significant latitude to the engineer. As such, Laura asked me to support her by teaching this challenging section of the Code. I agreed, since teaching one class isn’t nearly as daunting as taking on the whole series, and Laura pledged to help me with the online part of the presentation.

As far as content was concerned, Laura asked that I explain when a designer should use the body of Chapter 6 for pipe sizing versus Appendix A. Since the projects most of us work on are large in nature, I had never really pondered this distinction. I have always just gone through the motions of using Appendix A. It should be noted that the UCLA class is taught using the UPC-based California Plumbing Code. The IPC is similar, but it does not have any substantial sizing criteria in the body of Chapter 6. All sizing criteria is in Appendix E of the IPC.

If you are familiar with the UPC, Chapter 6 has a sizing table for what one could term low, medium and high pressure systems that are served by a water supply up to 2.5 inches in size and a maximum length of 1,000 feet. (Table 610.4). This table presumes flush tank-type water closets, and is based on the flush tank portion of Hunter’s Curve. If you have flush valve fixtures, there is a conversion Table 610.10 for converting flush valve fixtures to flush tank equivalent fixture units.

The UPC provides an incomplete sizing Example 610.10 in which they totalize the fixture unit loads, but stop short of actually sizing the pipes. In the UCLA lesson, we made some assumptions and completed the sizing example.

For larger buildings with a water service greater than 2.5 inches in size, the body of Chapter 6 cannot be used for sizing. Appendix A must be used instead. In this Appendix, all of the traditional water pipe sizing criteria is spelled out. Everything from Hunter’s Curve to the graph that correlates flow rate, pipe size, pipe velocity and friction factor, to friction losses though water meters and equivalent lengths of pipe fittings. In essence, everything one needs to know to size water piping for virtually any water system. The one element that is not well explained in Appendix A is the friction factor, and this is, of course, the key to sizing any piping system.

It is not my intent to go through the details of determining friction factors in this article. This preamble has served to lay a foundation for what was my first online educational experience—from the educator’s standpoint. For starters, rather than entering a classroom and figuring out how the projector worked and where to connect power and data, the online tutorial experience begins with an education on how to connect to the host server, and how to deal with all the peripheral devices. This may sound easy, but even a seasoned educator like Laura ran into unexpected obstacles.

Teaching online with two instructors in the same office presents unanticipated challenges in online education. We were lucky to have my company’s IT guru on hand to help us with things as seemingly simple as time-delay echo, data sharing, video split screen, wireless interface and a host of other things that Laura and IT guy dealt with while I went for coffee. Needless to say, had I been on my own, I would have been lost in the woods. Fortunately we planned well in advance in anticipation of these problems, so we had sufficient time and resources to have them resolved. Technology aside, online education is worlds apart from an instructional standpoint—it is both intimate and anonymous at the same time.

When you teach before a classroom of students (the only way I have taught in the past), you are provided with immediate feedback. The expressions on student’s faces, the arms that are raised and the questions that are asked create a substantive feedback mechanism that is familiar to me. As an online educator, you do not receive that real-time feedback, and it can be quite daunting.

The students do provide feedback by posting questions online during the presentation, but it can be difficult for the presenter to be aware of the posted questions while teaching. Laura was instrumental in this regard, as she tracked the student questions and answered them directly, or directed my attention to them when required.

Online education is yet another example of how much our society has changed and continues to evolve over time. When I first learned of the concept of online education years ago, I initially scoffed, thinking of it as a bogus means of attaining a seemingly significant credential. But with increasing proliferation, the online educational field is developing traction and credibility. The broad outreach of online education adds immensely to the educational experience. As an educator, instead of teaching to a small audience of local students who struggle to make it through rush hour traffic in time to attend class, you are reaching an audience of enthusiastic students all over the world, eager to learn what you have to share. What could be more inspiring as an educator than that? And when the educator is inspired, the students are inspired. It really is a great virtual feedback mechanism. OMG!

Timothy Allinson is vice president of engineering at Murray Company Mechanical Contractors in Long Beach, Calif. He holds a BSME from Tufts University and an MBA from New York University. He is a professional engineer, licensed in both mechanical and fire protection engineering in various states, and is a LEED-accredited professional. Allinson is a past president of ASPE, both the New York and Orange County chapters. He can be reached at lagunatictim@gmail.com.

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