Student Project Looks at Face Covering and Physical Distance Compliance on Campus

A person in a gray shirt and light face mask holds up a smartphoneA team of faculty and students from the Swanson School of Engineering has been working to provide a picture of how well students are complying with face covering requirements and physical distancing safety standards.

“It may not be obvious at first why industrial engineering could help with this public health crisis,” said Joel Haight, professor of industrial engineering and member of Pitt’s Implementation and Oversight Committee (IOC)—where students are also playing an important role. “It turns out that our field has a lot of techniques and tools to help understand compliance and make sure that is scientifically and systematically determined.”

The group decided to use a “work sampling” technique to monitor compliance on campus, and two teams of undergraduates will apply this research to their capstone project in a senior design course led by Mike Sherwin, assistant professor of industrial engineering.

“Work sampling involves observing individuals at random time intervals over a period of time, and it will give us a snapshot of what is going on around campus,” said Andrew Benda, a senior industrial engineering student and one of two project managers for the undergraduate teams.

The teams will collectively observe 60 defined locations across campus, such as the Towers patio and the Cathedral lawn. Each student will record roughly 20 samples per day in order to accumulate the 1,050 samples required each week to be a statistically representative snapshot.

“We established four routes that cover all 60 points across campus,” said Benda. “A schedule is generated for each student to make sure that every spot gets covered a couple of times, and we do randomized sampling between 8 a.m. and midnight every day of the week.”

The group consulted the IOC to clearly define what they considered compliant.

“When we look at a cluster of individuals, we look at three main criteria,” said Jacob Winakor, a senior industrial engineering student and the second project manager. “First, we make sure that they have a mask. Then we check to see if it is properly worn over the ears, covering your nose and your chin. In our report, we distinguish between who is wearing a mask and who is correctly wearing a mask.

“Social distancing is more difficult to measure,” he added, “but we want to make sure that if someone is within six feet of another person, they are correctly wearing a mask.”

A person in a Pitt face mask holding a phone“This is really critical process data,” said Elise Martin, assistant professor in the Department of Medicine and Division of Infectious Diseases and member of Pitt’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office. “From a safety perspective, we do this in hospitals all the time,” said Martin, who is also the associate medical director of infection prevention and hospital epidemiology for UPMC Presbyterian.

The work sampling student team—which includes Brian Lettrich, Nicholas Cerep, Matthew Fletcher, Henry Gise, Katherine Todd and Travis Hartig—began collecting samples on Monday, Aug. 24. The data sampling is strictly observational, completely anonymous and nonpunitive. Individuals are not identified. Data is shared internally with the IOC to help guide their work.

One early observation is that compliance with proper mask-wearing drops dramatically in the evening hours.

“To me this was quite intuitive,” said Haight. “When the lights go down there’s a perception that no one’s watching as closely.” He emphasized that there is no disciplinary component to any of this, nor is there any intention of finding out why or investigating further. “All we know is that the phenomenon is occurring. It’s helpful to be informed.”

As part of this overall project, another group of undergraduate engineering students will use the data collected from this effort and work with Bo Zeng, associate professor of industrial engineering, to validate a simulation that will estimate the amount of contact a person might encounter at certain locations. Members of the simulation team include Sherilyn Peter Selvakumar, Eryn McCormick, Sydney Winner and Collen Molczan.

“This project demonstrates the versatility of our field and how industrial engineering concepts can be used to evaluate and optimize a system, whether it is in a factory or on a University campus,” said Bopaya Bidanda, Ernest E. Roth Professor and Chair of Industrial Engineering. “This collaborative effort will hopefully guide safety professionals and help keep our community safe. We are truly all in this together.”