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.
Unfortunately, virtual labs don't give "real" hands-on experience when working with electrical circuits. It won't teach you what happens when you short a power supply, exceed the voltage rating of a capacitor or the power rating of a resistor.
Not to extend the list beyond reason, but unless a student has experienced electrical faults, such as a reversed biased electrolytic capacitor, high-voltage damage from ESD, leakage, crosstalk and noise from other logic within a system. A new EE does not get the complete picture that would make him/her a great engineer. The Virtual world is way too sanitized to provide the richness of the REAL world.
I think the title of this piece is misleading, and that therefore the previous two commenters came to the wrong conclusion.
This virtual lab is real. It consists of a kit of actual components, and a physical breadboard. The kit is delivered to the students via snail mail, or perhaps they can physically walk to an engineering building to pick it up.
The online aspects, and I gather the digital voltmeter and oscilloscope, are installed in the students' PCs. And there are also Skype sessions with the profs. However, the lab is a home "kit" of real physical components.
I've believed for some time now that for education to keep its costs reasonable, it will have to exploit digital autmation to the same extent as just about every other part of our economy. Same holds true for medicine. Both fields are still very labor-intensive, and therefore their costs have been increasing way too much. This seems like just the sort of initiative that we need.
I'm glad you cleared the air about tthe virtual lab being real and agree with your points. Perhaps the title could have been amended to "Why engineering students need a remote lab bench." The word "virtual" has its peculiar connotations.
The "Lab-in-a-box" is also being used to teach clinical doctoral-level audiology (Au.D. degree)students at at least one university, at my suggestion to a faculty member.
As it turns out, audiologists need the training, as they deal not only with prosthetics (hearing aids & cochlear implants), but also for electrophysiology -- Primarily auditory brainstem evoked response (ABR & ASSR), but also vestibular evoked myogenic potential (VEMP) and electrocochleogram (EcochG) testing.
An useful teaching method.The lab kit needs to have function generator,a multi channel digitizer,to measure current ,volt hertz,ohms,farads,Henry and ohms. A minimum of 4 channels required.Also a wave form monitor PC scope with a bandwidth of 5Mhz and 1 mv resolution.All this can be integrated for about $250 and will be highly useful to the students.
Being late to the table, I agree with Bert and agk...We are fortunate to have about 1.5 million Raspberry Pi's in the hands of hobbyists and students; along with a couple of billions of smart devices; all we need is an open platform with low-cost electronics to accomplish our Portable Experimenter Platform, powered by the Pi. It lets student perform hands-on experimentation such as measuring speed of sound, sonar, and later, measuring speed of light, etc. We have working prototypes and are seeking financial support to evolve it into a powerful lesson delivery system. Please check into WattminderInstruments.com and give us a critique.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.