Lowering the Entry Barrier to Build Inclusive Lab Spaces

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Seiya Ono, Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020

My first ever college class I walked into was a discussion section for EE16A, the introductory course into electrical engineering. Back then, I had no idea how challenging it was to introduce circuit design and analysis, concepts that are widely known to cause incredible amounts of confusion. I learned about the many challenges that came with teaching such confusing topics during my eight semesters on course staff.

Circuits are difficult to wrap our heads around. Electricity isn’t exactly a tangible concept and introducing circuit theory purely on paper can be overwhelming; this difficulty motivates us to provide hands-on labs as a supplementary means to learn the material. However, the equipment that we use in the lab to build circuits has many buttons, wires, and settings that can make the entire experience feel very daunting — this introduces an unnecessary entry barrier. If we could free the lab experience from this entry barrier, it would help level the playing field for students who didn’t have access to lab resources in high school by making the lab experience more immediately accessible, and allow said students to focus more on the pedagogical goals of the labs. So how do we build up enough familiarity and intuition with the lab environment to free the students from small mental distractions?

The approach taken was to create two new resources: (1) a lab guide full of pictures and explanations about every component and equipment the students would ever need, and (2) a new introductory lab that would function to introduce concepts detailed in the lab guide. I began by working through all of my own labs, meticulously detailing every decision I made in the process, paying extra attention to catch the near subconscious decisions I was making. This enabled me to create a list of frequently asked questions students tended to have about any particular equipment or component and tips for best practices to adhere to when completing circuits labs. Using this as a base, I wrote up a new resource for students and began scaffolding the new introductory lab.

Over the course of a semester, two other TAs and I were able to create both the new intro lab and the lab guide. We hoped the new lab would help foster a sense of familiarity with the lab environment by applying the concepts presented in the lab guide during the students’ first exposure to the material through interactive, tangible examples. The subsequent labs were then altered to keep referring back to the lab guide; By exposing the students repeatedly to the same, familiar resource, we could help build their confidence for using the lab space.

To evaluate the new intro lab and lab guide’s effectiveness, we closely observed how the students approached building their first circuits. As the students had no prior exposure to circuits, they were really just going through the motions, trying to piece together some simple circuits with the components provided. The strategy to introduce the equipment and lab environment early on proved to build students’ lab fundamentals, as the subsequent circuits labs that asked students to build more complicated circuits went much more smoothly than in previous semesters. We saw a decrease in the amount of time students spent on fundamental errors and an increase in the quality of understanding from completing the labs, as demonstrated by student responses to check-off questions. Moreover, we observed many students referring back to the lab guide to refresh their memory or confirm their thought process. Instead of being intimidated by the lab environment, we were able to get past the entry barrier and focus more on the big picture concepts.

Circuit theory is notorious for having a steep learning curve. I wanted to make that curve a bit less daunting by lowering the lab entry barrier — this helps to create an even playing field for students and slowly ease students in and build familiarity with the lab environment so that the larger problems don’t feel as impossible to take on. By breaking down every decision I took when completing the labs, I was able to create an easy-to-digest circuits guide and help develop a new intro lab for students to enable them to explore the fun world of electrical engineering.