Three ways to do hands-on and lab classes remotely

Michigan Engineering

One of the challenges of teaching online is how to create meaningful hands-on experiences, but this fall University of Michigan engineering students will build their own pulse oximeters, control a robotic arm, and install a radio antenna to collect data for a NASA mission to understand the sun’s most violent space weather eruptions.

Those are just a few examples of how Michigan Engineering will demonstrate this Fall semester that remote, hands-on learning is not an oxymoron.

To help professors adjust and create high quality experiences for students around the world, the College designated $500,000 toward the effort. Half of that went toward designing courses with a hybrid model, enabling some students to participate in person while others work remotely. The other $250,000 went toward materials for 17 classes that are sending kits to students so that they can complete hands-on projects at home.

“The idea was to tell our faculty members: ‘We know fall is going to be a challenge. You know what you’re doing with your class. Here’s funding to help you take it to where it needs to be,’” said Joanna Millunchick, associate dean for undergraduate education, who manages the program.

Kits will let students make pulse oximeters at home

A circuit with an electronic device saying calculating wired in.
A model of the pulse oximeter that students in the COVID-19 ENGIN 100 section will build. Pulse oximeters measure the concentration of oxygen in blood. Credit: Christian Riviera, Transforming Engineering Education Laboratory, University of Michigan

One of the home-kit courses is led by Aileen Huang-Saad, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and engineering education research. She structured this fall’s ENGIN 100 course around three specific case studies relevant to COVID-19: diagnostics, medical devices and patient monitoring.

“Remote learning is very difficult. If you can’t bring students into the lab you need to find creative ways to help them stay motivated,” said Huang-Saad. “By putting it in the context of COVID, a very real biomedical challenge, we are providing real world context to encourage them to be self-motivated and engage with the material.”

Students will not only learn about different methods for diagnosing COVID, but they will learn how to design medical devices with computer aided design and will be challenged to build pulse oximeters at home. Pulse oximeters measure oxygen concentrations in blood.

The course outline is published in the journal Biomedical Engineering Education, which is releasing a special issue on teaching and learning during the pandemic. Huang-Saad is deputy editor-in-chief.

Circuit kits and lab enhancements in electrical engineering

Bringing broader collaboration to the hands-on course pack model, the instructors of circuit-related courses Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) 215, 216 and 314 have clubbed together on kits to send to students as well as hybrid upgrades to their lab space. EECS 215 and 216 introduce circuits and signals for electrical engineering majors. EECS 314 covers these topics for everyone else.

The kits contain circuit elements such as resistors, capacitors and amplifiers, which students can assemble to demonstrate key concepts. Students at home will test their circuits with the Analog Discovery 2 tool—a compact instrument that generates input signals for circuits and measures their outputs.

Lab access to industry-standard devices is usually a differentiator for U-M’s electrical engineering program. To make sure remote students can learn to interpret these tools, instructors will provide them with screenshots from instruments in the U-M lab. But even students in the on-campus lab will have a digital hybrid experience due to the instructors having to keep an 8-foot distance from each student bench.

“Do not take my word for it,” said Alexander Ganago, an adjunct professor and instructional laboratories manager for electrical engineering and computer science, who is teaching EECS 314. “Put your credit card eight feet away and try to read its number.”

To enable better feedback for students despite stringent distancing requirements, Ganago is installing a document camera at the instructor’s bench so that students in the lab can clearly see the details of sample circuits and numerical data displayed on a large screen. In addition, students at home can view the images in real time or any time after the session. A second document camera will be installed at a spare student bench to help the instructors with troubleshooting.

Operating robot arms from home

But not all innovation is happening through the program funded by the College. Peter Gaskell, a lecturer in the Robotics Institute, is making sure that students in Robotics 550, Robotic Systems Laboratory, can get work done in the lab without physically being present. By setting up cameras around the benches, each with a robotic arm mounted to the top, students can send their code from home to the robot and see how well it performs tasks like detecting, picking up and stacking blocks.

“Sending a robotic manipulator to each student to build is both too expensive and not feasible. Instead students can send their code to the robot, remotely interact with it and remotely monitor the result,” said Gaskell.

He’s also set up screens so that students working remotely can have a virtual presence at the bench. The cameras, screens and networking equipment were purchased with funding from the Robotics Institute.

Radio antennas in students’ yards will advance a NASA mission

Justin Kasper, a professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, is sending radio antenna arrays to students in the Multidisciplinary Design Program who are working on the $55 million NASA Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment (SunRISE) project, which he leads. SunRISE aims to provide better information about coronal mass ejections, the most violent type of solar weather, and which ones will produce high energy particle radiation that could harm spacecraft or astronauts. The mission is set to launch in 2023.

The students will build radio antenna arrays in their yards and measure their local radio wave scenes, taking data around the country. It will help them better understand software that they are developing for SunRISE, which will record solar radio emissions from space. Kasper is supporting the ground antenna project with his discretionary funds.

“Our original plan was to buy a few antennas and set them up around Ann Arbor, so after we had to ramp down our lab activities, we were trying to find some way to get their hands on something physical instead of just writing code,” said Kasper. “We realized it was well worth the shipping costs to move antennas among their homes.”

Millunchick is also a professor of materials science and engineering, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor, and a Bicentennial Professor.

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