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Lab in a box components, including the ADALM2000 test instrument.

Lab in a box components used in electrical and computer engineering, including the ADALM2000 test instrument.

Bringing the lab home

June 24, 2021 — 

It can’t be overstated: COVID-19 threw everyone for a loop, including students, instructors and teaching assistants in post-secondary education. One of the pressing questions: How can in-person instruction be adapted to a remote learning environment, especially when it comes to hands-on activities like labs?

This question is being answered throughout the university, and the experiences in electrical and computer engineering demonstrate that UM instructors rose to the challenge.

Derek Oliver, associate head (electrical engineering), notes that nearly half of the courses in electrical and computer engineering were moved to a remote learning format dubbed “lab in a box”, where kits of components were distributed to students so that they could do their labs at home, with tech support provided by teaching assistants through Webex.

As Glen Kolansky, chief technologist for electrical and computer engineering, explains, this concept wasn’t new to electrical and computer engineering, but it did require some tweaking to make it accessible to the raft of new labs that now required it.

Four years before the pandemic, Kolansky says work had been underway to develop a supplemental program so students could work on the lab component of the ECE 2262 Electric Circuits course from home.

The project incorporated a USB-based test instrument called ADALM1000, that when combined with a computer and some software, could be used as a limited substitute for some of the expensive test equipment used in actual undergraduate labs. While there were some successes with the program, ADALM1000 lacked some of the technical requirements needed to run lab circuits outside an engineering lab environment, so it wasn’t taken further

Fast forward to the pandemic. Coincidentally – and conveniently – the USB tool had been upgraded six months earlier, making ADALM2000, when paired with some additional lab items and parts, a much more useful option.

“When the pandemic affected university operations in March 2020, our department began to take this supplemental program developed for one course and began applying the concept to a number of ECE courses to give students a “hands-on” experience of doing course labs at home, hence the “lab in a box” concept,” says Kolansky.

At the same time, other engineering schools around the world had seen the value of this tool too, and ADALM2000 was in short supply.

“Although we had purchased a number of these units prior to the pandemic,” says Kolansky, “we needed more to supply all students taking the ECE 2262 and ECE 2160 courses.”

Once all the required components were sourced and the technical issues of having students log on to the lab computers remotely to access the specialized software were ironed out, the kits were safely distributed to students so they could set up their own lab at home.

“Organizing the lending out of all the equipment and making sure it was in working condition turned out to be quite successful,” says professor Joe LoVetri, who taught ECE 2262 (Electric Circuits). “I thank our department technologists for handling this difficult task and making the process run quite smoothly.” 

The guiding principle in adapting labs for remote learning was to deliver a similar learning experience to what students would experience if they were at the lab bench.

“We wanted to expose students to as much of the usual hands-on experience that they would have received under a normal setting,” says LoVetri.

Carl Ho, associate professor and Canada Research Chair, agrees.

He taught ECE2160 (Electronics 2E) where the lab component was to design and analyze electronic circuits. The goal was for students to apply the theory they learned in a lecture to a practical application.

“Students could build physical circuits at home to gain hands on experience and evaluate it using low-cost and computer-connected equipment,” says Ho.

Ho and the team created a pre-lab video to guide students to solve mathematical problems and design the corresponding circuit, as well as a video to explain how to execute the lab. He notes that all videos were uploaded one week in advance so students could prepare.

The number of teaching assistants was also increased so that if there were any issues they could be dealt with quickly. ““Of course, there were some problems related to students not knowing how to set up their equipment but our T.A.s and technical staff did an excellent job in helping out the students having such issues,” says LoVetri.

LoVetri notes that while students were able to work on their own, it was stressful for them. “Normally students would work in groups of two and the interactions from such group work is very valuable,” he says. “Being alone can cause a lot of anxiety when things don’t work.”

James Dietrich, Engineer-in-Residence, whose focus is the laboratories and their culmination in a design project, worked with Ho on re-imagining the labs to work with the kit components that the students were sent.

Although he sees many positive paradigm shifts coming out of the disruption of traditional academic course delivery, he has noticed some short-term pain in the pursuit of long-term gain.

Class participation, which naturally occurs during in-person activities, can be more challenging when students have their cameras turned off. He is hopeful that will change if expectations are communicated clearly to students.

“Online teaching and learning is still in its infancy stages and with proper iterations and adaptations it will become a powerful tool which effectively connects with the different modalities of individual learning – the ability to pause, rewind, replay at variable speeds, check the solution to a problem and then move on, etc.,” says Dietrich.

While there were challenges in delivering the labs remotely, including technical problems, such as internet connectivity issues, webcam quality and software compatibility, there were also successes.

“The biggest success is that students still can achieve their learning objective for the labs, although the learning experience is different from the regular in-person labs and they faced a lot of challenges,” says Ho. “I am so proud of my students and the teaching team.”

Oliver sums it up well. “This was a significant team effort that not only ensured that we delivered the material and lab experience, but none of the experiential learning was compromised – one could argue that working alone gave individual students a more immersive/experiential environment, although we have to acknowledge that this was still a challenging experience.”

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