Georgia Tech Student Serving In Iraq Finds Time to Hit the Books

Even though Marshall Groves was stationed in Iraq before the war broke out, the 30-year-old Air Force pilot has managed to keep up with his studies, filing coursework via email back to Georgia Tech where he is working on a master's degree in mechanical engineering.

Capt. Groves, assigned to the 20th Special Operations Squadron from Hurlburt Field in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., has completed all of his coursework online so far, since he has been unable to physically attend classes on campus. From a laptop in his tent, between piloting a Sikorsky MH-53M "Pave Low," used for special operations and combat search and rescue, Groves is finishing his fifth online class in Georgia Tech's distance learning program.

"My deployment schedule has been hectic at times, and quiet during others," Groves wrote in an email from Iraq. "At the start of my deployment, I was able to keep up somewhat as well. Once the war started, I didn't touch it for a couple of weeks."

Before Groves was deployed to Iraq, he gathered everything he needed so he could work at his own pace in the class, which focuses on designing open engineering systems. He downloaded and printed all of the reading material he'd need for the class. His professor, Farrokh Mistree, in Georgia Tech's School of Mechanical Engineering gave him a CD-rom of the previous semester's class.

"Everything I need is on my laptop computer," he writes. "CD-roms and email made my coursework possible. Mail takes 3-4 weeks or longer to get here. I had to have all of the courseware available before I left, otherwise the task would have been near impossible."

What's it like completing a distance learning class from war? Being deployed as a pilot means a lot of down time sitting on alert for contingencies that seldom happen, Groves says. Pilots are also required to have 12 hours of rest prior to flying, which leaves only a couple of hours to study even when things are hectic. When his crew flies heavily, however, there is little time or energy for anything else.

"It was possible to sit in my tent, put in earplugs, and complete my coursework," he said. "There is no library, of course, and it is difficult to conduct any kind of research. Whenever I use e-mail I have to wait in line and I'm usually limited to 15 minutes, so even surfing the Internet is difficult. Many sites are restricted."

Professor Mistree, Marshall's instructor at Georgia Tech, has had students take his online course while serving in the military before, but never from a war. When working with students in this type of scenario, he realizes he must be accommodating with deadlines and correspondence.

"Our focus is on empowering students to learn how to learn while accommodating the needs of distance learning students," Mistree said.

In fall 1999, Georgia Tech became the first university in the nation to offer its master's degree in mechanical engineering entirely via the Internet. Twenty-one courses in CD-ROM format are on web. Internet instruction includes links to other web-based materials and features the power and capability of Georgia Tech's computer network.

Groves, who obtained his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO in 1995, hopes to complete at least a portion of the remainder of his studies on campus at Georgia Tech. He expects to graduate within three years. In the current course Groves is completing, he has finished all his assignments and is working now on the final project. Groves expects to return to the U.S. in late June and hopefully stay a while.