Remote Hands-on Hardware Lab: Aiming at 0% Discount in Learning Experience during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Panagiotis Zarkos, Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2021

There is a palpable excitement in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences 16A classroom as undergraduate freshmen set out to begin their journey in electrical engineering with a rather demanding course that introduces them to modern information devices and systems. Having immensely enjoyed two semesters of teaching the class, I signed up to be the circuits module instructor for the Summer 2020 offering. 

Circuits have traditionally been a practical discipline, one that always required lab practice to complement the theoretical understanding of the concepts presented in the classroom. Apart from enhancing learning, getting one’s feet wet by tinkering with fundamental components serves as a highly motivational experience for young electrical engineers. This in-person aspect of education took a big hit after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced all classes to proceed in a fully remote instruction setting. To salvage the Spring 2020 semester, all in-person lab exercises were replaced with “equivalent” simulations. Even though this solution was the only available alternative for the semester already underway, it deprived the students of exposure to real-world circuits and systems. It also stripped the class of the fun, excitement and self-learning that comes from building your own touchscreen, making circuits seem drier and more undecipherable. 

Naturally, the goal was set right from the start: I had to transfer as much of the physical lab to the remote setting as possible. The main challenges were that I had to a) eliminate all expensive and bulky equipment that was impossible to distribute by mail, such as power supplies and multimeters, b) eliminate the need for soldering to ensure a safe at-home lab environment, and c) do both of these things quickly. In collaboration with a senior lab GSI, we managed to design, build, and test two PCBs that included the same functionality as the regular course offering labs. The students could now go through the nice progression of regular lab exercises: the initial breadboarding of an LED fader circuit was followed up by implementing resistive and capacitive touchscreens on our two PCBs without any soldering required. Impressively, in slightly over a month we went from development to mass ordering of remote lab kits that worked just as flawlessly as the in-person labs (which had undergone several semesters of refinement), with a total cost of approximately three dollars per student. 

While developing the lab kits, I realized that the lab and lecture components of the class had become somewhat disconnected. To mend this and ensure that the students were eased into the remote lab, I accompanied most lectures with a live demo. Simple live demos of voltage and current measurements built up to more complicated ones, finally using an op-amp to drive a speaker that would play a sound. Concepts taught in class were thus translated to tangible hardware, helping students connect the dots and increasing their engagement level, while also introducing them to the components of their lab kits. 

Students really welcomed the opportunity to finally have an interactive educational tool after three full months of isolation, often singling out the lab kits as one of their favorite aspects of the class. At the same time, the demos were the most well-received part of the circuits lectures, as they spurred many interesting discussions that evaded technicalities of circuit analysis algorithms and focused on their essence, the physical laws and the intuition behind these concepts. To formally evaluate the remote lab changes and ensure students were not mechanically following the lab instructions, we included conceptual checkoff questions at the end of each assignment. As the labs progressed, we noticed that students were able to complete the latter parts of the lab in the same amount of time or less compared to the first ones or the in-person ones of the same difficulty. Finally, it should be noted that the lab kit developed for Summer 2020 is still used in today’s offering of the course.

This past year it has been particularly difficult for all of us to keep up with our everyday activities. Especially for incoming students, this remote setting can often be hostile and impersonal. Driven by our passion to not make any compromises in the learning experience of our freshmen, we were able to put together a lab kit that would make their introductory meeting with electrical engineering a bit warmer and refuel their excitement and energy to keep on exploring and experimenting.