Science, Technology and Health

Completing the Circuit for Electrical and Computer Engineering Students

Written by Dean Forbes

August 11, 2020

Gary Fernandes prepares lab kits for mailing to students

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

Gary Fernandes, ECE laboratory manager, assembles kits to be mailed to students for fall courses.

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The faculty and a staff member of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program in the College of Science and Engineering have come up with innovative ways to bring the labs to students’ homes while promoting collaborative learning to increase student engagement.

 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting move to mostly remote learning this fall presents special challenges for in-person courses that traditionally include laboratory components and hands-on learning. The faculty and a staff member of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program in the College of Science and Engineering have come up with innovative ways to bring the labs to students’ homes while promoting collaborative learning to increase student engagement.

Gary Fernandes, ECE laboratory manager, has been busily assembling unique kits for the 95 undergraduate students enrolled in four specific courses: Digital Operations & Computation; Physical Computing with Python; Laboratory 1: Circuits; and Mobile Robotics.

“At Seattle U, we have transitioned our labs in ECE away from prescriptive fill-in-the-blank style labs to project-based labs where students learn by working on real engineering projects,” says Richard Bankhead, ECE lecturer and innovator in residence. “Even though we will not be together on campus this fall, faculty are working hard to provide engaging student experiences.”

One of the kits is a solar tracker featuring a solar panel that uses a Raspberry Pi computer plug-in as a control system. The solar tracker follows the sun to generate maximum power from the panel. Another kit is a mobile robotics platform which can be programmed to perform a variety of tasks such as wayfinding, obstacle avoidance and sensor reading.

“The electronic lab kits have been redesigned, in some cases from scratch, to best meet the needs of students and faculty wanting to operate fully from home—yet maintain the same level of hands-on lab learning,” says Fernandes.

In the past, students would pick up the kits on their first day of class. Often, the kits were designed to take home as well. However, Fernandes notes it's a larger process to setup for fully remote operations.

Previously, “if a kit had a missing or broken part, a student could easily swap out the part with a new one in the labs. But when the student is in Kuwait or Tacoma, some extra parts are included,” says Fernandes. “We have chosen to maintain the same level of hands-on lab work and provide students with expanded electronic lab kits to ensure the same level of experience,” he says.

Making the Virtual Whiteboard More Accessible

Bankhead and ECE Assistant Professor Shiny Abraham, PhD, are tackling the challenge of keeping students engaged with their coursework by breaking them into small groups to solve problems on the board. With remote learning, the classroom whiteboard must now be virtual.

“Using Microsoft Whiteboard, students can simultaneously write on a digital whiteboard that is shared live. However, to participate effectively, students must have a touch screen-enabled device to write on the whiteboard,” says Bankhead. “Expecting students to purchase devices which cost roughly $400 by fall quarter is out of the question.”

As a work around, he and Abraham will pilot the use of $40 pen tablets in Abraham’s Electrical Circuits II course. Through a grant from W. M. Keck Foundation, students who do not have touch screen devices such as iPads or Surface computers will receive a pen tablet to borrow for the quarter.

Students can be easily divided into teams using the Zoom Breakout Rooms feature, however, it’s challenging to collaboratively solve problems by drawing with a mouse. With Microsoft Whiteboard and pen tablets, students are also able to share their live ink and live audio/video from Zoom simultaneously. 

“Collaboration in the classroom provides a structure for student-centered peer instruction, while also fostering connections and building relationships,” says Abraham. “We are excited to have this opportunity to reimagine collaborative problem-solving in the online space.”

Adapting such live ink technologies to incorporate more active learning in courses conforms with proven pedagogy that “students learn to solve engineering problems by solving engineering problems,” says Bankhead. “Watching the instructor solve problems can be beneficial to get started, but for students to learn, they must practice.”

“During face to face lectures we typically would take time out for active learning exercises where students are broken into groups to work on an exercise,” he says. “Students can get help with questions from peers. They can ask questions of the instructor as a group. It also helps build the community among students and emphasizes the expectation that they work together to learn to be engineers.”

 

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