Can EE Education Survive Online? COVID-19 Forces Universities to Get Creative
Campuses are shutting down across the country, leaving engineering students and professors to continue their classes online. How are universities handling the loss of hands-on education?
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has forced the closing of college campuses across the US. For most programs, learning will now need to take place online for at least the immediate future.
A major selling point for undergraduate curriculums these days is the emphasis on hands-on experience, and—at first glance—it would seem that this might not be possible for now.
How are universities handling the shift to online learning? While many students have the computer competency needed to utilize online tools (almost the same kind of prerequisite for survival the way I recall calculus and physics were when I was a student), there are a host of other issues associated with online learning that EE programs face.
Remote Collaboration Platforms
For much of an EE student's curriculum, textbooks and online resources can be utilized from home. The issue becomes facilitating discussion as a class and the interactions with professors and mentors, all of which are vital to training engineers how to access resources in the workplace.
Looming large in the drive to online education is Zoom, a powerful video-conferencing application. The program allows for real-time online collaboration. An article published by the Samueli School of Engineering at UCLA describes their experience.
In some ways, large lecture class experiences were actually improved, because the most basic feature of the program records the whole event. Students can thus “attend” lectures whenever they want and as often as they want. In addition, as described in an article published by Michigan Tech, Zoom will also facilitate screen sharing between students and teachers.
Zoom can display up to 49 class participants on one screen. Image used courtesy of Zoom
Instructors are evidently often left to determine which platforms to utilize for face-time with students. Rosie Van Alsburg, a senior who acts as an instructional aid for the University of Michigan's ECE department, guessed that Google Hangouts or another option called BlueJeans may be used for her programming course's lab. "... It’s 100% the right call to move online," she told her university's online publication. "The unfortunate part is that not everyone learns well from a video, and it’s hard to conduct office hours this way.”
The Conundrum of Remote Laboratory Experience
Of course, not everything in an engineer's education can be taught through video chat. There are many aspects of learning that may be irreplaceable if access to lab equipment and hands-on experimentation are lost. For many students, it is these experiences that arm them for the real world.
Many employers rely on this in-person training to prepare their recruits with the basics of skills such as the use of basic test and measurement equipment.
Simulating the Lab
One solution is simulation. At Michigan Tech, ECE lecturer Kit Cischke’s students are utilizing a browser-based simulator that allows students to do virtual manipulations to reproduce what they would have otherwise experienced with actual, physical hardware. But even here, working with simulators won’t provide the “dirt-under-fingernails” experience that schools that Michigan Tech is known for.
For more advanced students, it might be easy enough to build a simulator of a classical op-amp for sophomores to explore, but the experience falls short with anything research-based. As practicing engineers know all too well, much of their real work involves resolving the innumerable discrepancies that occur between the simulator’s results and real-world measurements.
3D Printing and Video Experiments
Preparing students for this reality without in-lab training is extremely difficult to accomplish. But that doesn’t mean that EE faculty at Yale can’t try.
They’ve taken the unusual step of creating components for student projects via 3D printing and allowing them to use personal milling machines they have in their homes.
Perhaps less immersive is the use of sophisticated video techniques that allow students to watch faculty members conduct experiments.
A Yale faculty member teaching other faculty members how to use video equipment. Image used courtesy of Yale
Per Glenn Weston-Murphy, engineering design advisor, “We have data sets from previous years or earlier this year, so for those students who haven’t seen or touched the apparatus, we’re giving them video demonstrations of those experiments.”
Where’s the hands-on here? Where’s the trial and error? Whatever else this is, it certainly isn’t the standard laboratory experience for students.
Remote Engineering in the Future
Students should take heart, however, that there are some applications where this kind of remote laboratory experience will come in handy.
There are engineers working today to develop military and industrial infrastructure in space. In such a situation, there would be a tiny core of astronauts there to do hands-on work, but the vast majority of the real-time engineering would be done remotely from Earth. One thing that can be said for remote lab work is that it might better prepare those engineers for their future life’s work.
Necessity Is the Mother of Collaborative Software
The phenomena of virtualization and remote work have been slowly advancing for some time now, but the health crisis is mandating an abrupt acceleration of the process that will inevitably leave some behind.
And it’s not only the underprepared. An article in the Los Angeles Times details some of the difficulties that even budding tech leaders are experiencing. In effect, the virus crisis is turning the entire US higher education system into a gigantic beta site.
Worse still is the fact that students are fundamentally alone. You have to be your own system manager, with no face-to-face help if you can’t figure out how to take full advantage of this program on your own.
But that might not be such a bad thing for budding engineers.
What engineers do is that they make things work. Yes, the virus has made this an emergency, not a normal progression like it might have been—zero to sixty in nothing flat. But his is what engineering students have signed up for, whether they know it or not. And, now may be as good a time as any to learn this.
In my own undergraduate experience, the vast majority of my time was spent wrestling with my textbooks. That hasn’t changed, even if many of the “textbooks” are now online.
What can’t be simulated online is the shop experience and the laboratory experience, and that’s the pity.