How EE Lab Education is Evolving with At-Home Learning

November 24, 2020 by Tyler Charboneau

Now that universities are adjusting to the realities of remote learning, how are they accommodating the hands-on aspects of EE lab education?

Like students across disciplines, electrical engineering (EE) students have felt the effects of the online learning movement. Though leveraging on-campus resources is no longer possible, universities have stepped in to replicate the laboratory experience at home. Here’s how institutions are tackling the challenges of remote education head-on.  


The Challenging Shift to Remote Learning

While a movement toward e-learning is nothing new, the transition notably accelerated since March when colleges first recognized the need for contingency planning. Applications like Zoom, Google Hangouts, and BlueJeans have been linchpins for instructors seeking to emulate the classroom. 


EE students have had to adapt to the unique online learning environment as other students have

EE students have had to adapt to the unique online learning environment as other students have. Image used courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka and UCLA

While these resources have done the job overall, EE professors have comparatively struggled to provide quality instruction. Experiments and demonstrations don’t pack the same punch when they’re beamed over the airwaves. Students need—and crave—the tactile, interactive feedback stemming from physical experimentation. Core tasks include, but aren’t limited to, the following: 

  • Learning how to use basic hand tools and electronic tools
  • Learning how to solder or splice
  • Learning how to manipulate and piece together basic electrical components
  • Analyzing basic circuitry behind resistors, capacitors, and amplifiers
  • Interpreting signal characteristics and critical conductive pathways

As one might imagine, viewing is much different than doing. This has been a central challenge in improving EE education from afar. Hands-on learning also sparks a passion for the subject matter. Thankfully, many universities have caught on. Browser-based simulators and videos are yielding practical new solutions.


Embracing Electronics Kits

A typical EE student works with a number of fundamental instruments and testing devices—or those central to learning the basics behind electrical circuitry. These include oscilloscopes, function generators, multimeters, and breadboards. All are readily available in a laboratory setting. The interactive lessons students learn with those items are the building blocks for future coursework. Fortunately, it seems such instruments aren’t restricted to the classroom. 

Perhaps the best solution has been the distribution of kits to students. Included electronics are compact, fully-functional, and operable at a desk or kitchen table—no need for expensive or expansive setups.

The Department of Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology has led the charge by equipping students with Arduino Uno units. These kits replace three critical instruments—the multimeter, function generator, and multichannel oscilloscope—while including customized breadboards and related circuitry. The solution is also financially sustainable. A single Arduino Uno Rev3 can be purchased for under $30.


Arduino Uno Rev3

Arduino Uno Rev3. Image used courtesy of Arduino


Combined with an internet-connected laptop and webcam, NJIT students partake in video labs spanning two hours each (in sets of three). However, pacing is ultimately self-determined. Because instructors recognize that synchronized lessons may be challenging, students are welcome to learn on their own terms. 

Students learn to manipulate pulse rates, interpret voltage traces, and analyze their impacts on electrical functionality. They may study capacitor behavior in response to charging and discharging. Professors introduce students to sonification and, accordingly, active amplification. All results are logged digitally and interface seamlessly with Excel and MATLAB. 

What if one gets stuck on a concept? The Department has slashed class sizes. It has also assigned teaching assistants and peer mentors alongside professors. This helps maintain an optimal 10:1 student-teacher ratio.


Duke University Initiatives

Duke University’s Electrical & Computer Engineering (ECE) program has taken a similar approach. Students in six courses—from introductory to advanced—received customized kits in accordance with their coursework

A notable challenge in Duke’s case was getting kits into the students' hands. 231 kits needed to reach students in nine countries on four continents. Some students were on campus and many were remote. Students could safely pick up their kits in-person by appointment or could opt for delivery via courier. Two ECE students surveyed said the process was very simple. 


Infographic of the materials various students in various ECE students received

Infographic of the materials various students in various ECE students received. Image used courtesy of Duke University

This illuminates another major talking point of the e-learning transition: logistics. Providing detailed instruction is one thing. However, colleges have had to devise unprecedented strategies for delivering hardware to scholars. For example, international customs delays meant some students received kits one or more weeks later than others. 

Members of the ECE program received the following: 

  • Arduino boards
  • Breadboards
  • Resistors
  • Capacitors
  • Transformers
  • Sensor suites
  • Screwdrivers
  • Testing equipment like multimeters, temperature probes, function generators, and oscilloscopes

Online labs at Duke have remained pretty tight-knit. Professors lead small groups of seven to eight students. This affords each student plenty of guidance—especially when teaching assistants are involved.


The University of Michigan and COVID-Tailored Solutions

The Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) department at Michigan has given students a choice in their instruction. While those required or insistent on attending on-campus labs must respect stringent social-distancing requirements, digital tools will still be essential. Labs have been upgraded to allow for clear instruction from a distance; it’s otherwise difficult to read small text and follow intricate demos. Cameras at the instructor desk also make this easier. 

Furthermore, remote learners are using kits like those provided by Duke and NJIT. All eligible EECS students also receive an Analog Discovery 2 for measuring signal outputs. 

COVID-19 has inspired plenty of engineering efforts, and those have trickled into the online classroom. Students in a special COVID section of ENGIN 100 build homemade pulse oximeters. This biomedical track encourages students to learn about diagnostics. 


An at-home pulse oximeter design

An at-home pulse oximeter design, assembled by ENGIN 100 students. Image used courtesy of Christian Riviera and the University of Michigan


It also introduces students to the intricate electronics behind medical devices. Design labs help them create these items remotely.


UCLA Tackles Electrical Learning Across Departments

Physics students and Samueli School of Engineering students at UCLA alike learn the basics of circuitry in their core courses. UCLA has recognized the need to provide those in fully-remote programs with affordable equipment. Arduino and Snap Circuit kits provide students with the hardware they need for experimentation. 


Teaching assistant demonstrates AC circuit by Arduino

Teaching assistant demonstrates AC circuit by Arduino. Image used courtesy of Katsushi Arisaka and UCLA

Students are encouraged to design their own labs. Instead of professors handing down rigid instructions, undergraduates must take the explorative reigns—familiarizing themselves with equipment and processes. All electronic diagnostics and tests are supported by professors and their teaching assistants. 

While video plays an important role, instructors aren’t reliant on it. This allows for a more creative, holistic approach.


The Future of EE Remote Learning

We know that remote EE education isn’t some novel concept; it’s existed since about 2002, following the IEEE International Caracas Conference on Devices, Circuits and Systems. The remote laboratory has been crucial for advancing learning. Computers, digital instruments, and virtual labs have paved the way for remote education. 

Today, we’re building on those foundations and running with it. The methods colleges are using in the most difficult of times have made democratized education easier from afar. Whether students are controlling robotic arms remotely or building components, location is becoming less of a barrier. In fact, leaders in the EE field, including MIT professor Anant Agarwal who participated in All About Circuits' recent Moore's Lobby podcast, see remote education as vital for newer generations of electrical engineers.  

More universities will follow suit, though the situation is fluid. It’s encouraging to see that an evolving pandemic hasn’t stopped coursework in its tracks.