Build the lab and they will come – and stand in line. Put the lab online and students can carry out experiments anywhere. That’s the basic premise behind the “Lab-in-a-box” model Virginia Tech developed a few years ago -- out of necessity.
Virginia Tech’s department of electrical and computer engineering currently has about 625 undergrad engineering majors enrolled in beginning circuits and electronics classes, all competing for just 48 lab seats. With three hours of lab per week, that would be 39 lab sections to schedule. Impossible.
Instead, we built a better mousetrap, then put it online. Now, many more engineering students get to experience hands-on learning wherever they are, which is especially important today. Thanks to recent enhancements, our virtual lab bench keeps getting better while the cost per student is down to the price of a textbook.
These are challenging but exciting times for the future of engineering. A recent cover story in Prism, the magazine of the American Society for Engineering Education, reported on how colleges are bringing hands-on learning into the curriculum. While the initiatives vary in scope, all are designed to keep students revved up on engineering.
Our students love Lab-in-a-box. The kit allows them to design, build and test various DC and AC circuits at home. Students build self-confidence as they learn to build a circuit with “real” physical components instead of “symbolic” parts.
The kit typically includes a digital multimeter, a software oscilloscope, a powered circuit trainer with an attached breadboard, wires, and various electronic components. Digilent Inc. is offering basic analog design kits using Analog Devices components for $99 to $199. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, we’ve put Lab-in a-box online as well, adding online multimedia learning materials, including short lectures and more than 60 tutorials. In fact, some introductory classes are entirely online now.
Students crave the convenience. Many are nontraditional students who can’t afford a one-credit lab course. But they’re not totally on their own. Virginia Tech has also developed ways, using chat tools like Skype to have professors “look over the shoulder” of their students as they carry out experiments, take measurements, and analyze data. Using the digital multimeter, professors can take over the screen if need be. In addition, we’ve created online tutorials that demonstrate procedures, such as how a Bode plot works with importing and exporting data from the oscilloscope. The goal is to make these tools available on a Web site open to all engineering schools.