How to Get Hands-On Engineering Experience in the Era of Remote Education
Nyssa posted on September 28, 2020 |
Engineering students at Carleton and Stanford learn online with innovative hands-on techniques.
(Image courtesy of Carleton University.)
(Image courtesy of Carleton University.)

As universities navigate through a very different September than ever before, program innovation is key for those engineering students who are learning remotely this semester. Both Carleton and Stanford Universities have developed innovative solutions that allow students to maintain the same quality of education as a regular school year by providing hands-on experiences with hardware and software that are accessible from home.

Carleton University has reinvented the lab experience for its electronics and computer science courses through a combination of hardware and software solutions. Similarly, the University of Stanford’s Experimental Robotics program is using physics-accurate simulation for its move online.

The goal of these and other universities finding unique solutions for online education is to enable an authentic experience in terms of labs and experiments—one comparable to what students would typically have in a regular school environment. In fact, with the online tools, equipment and software now added to this year's curriculum, it can even be argued that in terms of professional development in the engineering field, these students will now have an edge. 

Remote Electronics Lab Access at Carleton University

At Carleton University, both the Electronics and the Computer Science programs in the Faculty of Engineering and Design have introduced remote access to campus tools and equipment to complete their lab work online.  Software allows them to run simulations and interact with on-campus hardware in real-time.

Within Carleton’s Department of Electronics, students working from home can use their own computer to remotely access equipment and tools that are physically located on-campus. During lab hours, students use the school’s server to log into workstations set up at a Carleton lab. The workstations include hardware, such as a Raspberry Pi programming board, and are hooked up to webcams so that students can see their progress in real time.

Video demonstration of remote access lab using Raspberry Pi as part of Carleton University first-year Department of Electronics course. (Courtesy of Carleton University.)

“We’re looking to provide an experience as close as possible to what students would receive during in-person labs,” says Niall Tait, Carleton’s Department of Electronics Chair. “We haven’t watered down the content or altered course standards – we’re simply developing new ways of delivering the material.”

To support the lab sessions, an instructor technician is available to view the state of the equipment and answer questions. Additional lab time and in-depth tutorial videos have also been made available to ensure that students understand how to use the remote equipment and can operate the hardware and software comfortably.

Meanwhile, students in Carleton’s Department of Systems and Computer Engineering are learning with an alternative approach. In order to encourage hands-on learning, students in summer courses were sent hardware kits with all the components needed to complete an assignment, such as a mixed-signal microcontroller and Booster Pack with a joystick and LCD screen.

Example of components included in the home lab electronics kits sent out by the Department of Systems and Computer Engineering. (Image courtesy of Carleton University.)
Example of components included in the home lab electronics kits sent out by the Department of Systems and Computer Engineering. (Image courtesy of Carleton University.)

One bonus of remote learning is that students get to keep the hardware with them for the entire semester. This means that students can actually have much more time with the hardware than during a regular school year, when they may only have access to the hardware during lab sessions.

One third-year software engineering student attending the university’s summer course, Kevin Fox, noted, “Having the course (not) be taught at specific times, but on your own time, makes it easier for me to learn, and also having the lab kit to play around with for the entire course makes it a lot easier.”

Third year engineering student Kevin Fox describes remote experiential learning using the home lab electronics kit provided by Carleton University’s Department of Systems and Computer Engineering and shares advice for future students who will be doing their education online this fall.

Experimental Robotics at Stanford University

This year at Stanford University, students in the Experimental Robots program continued to learn robot control, computer vision and mechanical engineering—but did so through an online simulation, rather than a physical campus lab. The simulation program contrasts the typical school year experience, where robots are usually built in-person and in real life.

The simulation features real-time feedback and accurate physics, which allows students to learn the same programming skills as they would during a regular school year. Though some of the students noted that the use of the simulation technology required “a steep learning curve,” overall the students’ experience learning remotely with the simulated lab has proven to be rewarding and useful.

“There’s a pretty steep learning curve, and after you finish the assignment, it’s pretty cool to go back and see, ‘Okay, when I first read this, I had no clue how to even start.’ But then through office hours and working through it, maybe stumbling through some obstacles, at the end it all really made sense,” said Cynthia, a graduate student in the program.

Spikeball simulation used for the experimental robotics program at Stanford. (Image courtesy of Stanford University.)
Spikeball simulation used for the experimental robotics program at Stanford. (Image courtesy of Stanford University.)

The Experimental Robotics program usually involves fun and creative projects centered around project-based learning and building robots in real life. This year’s projects included commercial construction, satellite capture and something dubbed “Spikeball.”

In addition to the technical skills learned, Stanford’s course format made sure that students also had the opportunity to maintain personal interactions with other students in the class through project-based assignments. Those students who have already participated in the online program over the summer noted the advantages of this format over typical remote learning where students simply log onto Zoom, receive a lecture and assignment instructions, and then do their work independently.

Every year, students at Stanford University’s Experimental Robotics program complete a variety of fun and creative tasks. This year’s class was moved online due to COVID-19, but students used the same programming skillset in simulation to complete their tasks.

The Advantages of Remote Learning

Carleton and Stanford are both excellent examples of how engineering programs are not merely coping with the restrictions in place due to COVID-19, but rather are excelling in the remote learning opportunities students have and offering advantages that were previously absent.

For years, modern engineering workplaces have been using modeling and simulation practices to aid the analysis and design of systems. However, research has proven that in spite of the importance of modeling and simulation in science and engineering workplaces, often the faculty and education institutions are not quite keeping pace with the need for graduates with this complex skill set.

Whether it's extra time with lab equipment at Carleton, or the use of simulation software at Stanford, the new teaching tools emerging and being implemented as a response to COVID-19 are in many cases providing students with the professional engineering skills they will require upon graduation into the real-world workplace.

One graduate student at Stanford, Daniel Thomlinson noted, “Of all the things that have been changed due to the recent circumstances, this is one thing that worked out. There is some sadness that you cannot build or implement things, but as far as simulating goes, this is as cool as it could have gotten.”

As universities continue to adapt to a new learning structure, there will be many unique opportunities for innovation in program design and delivery, educational tools and transforming engineering education to fit the modern world.

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