Returning to in-person teaching - what is it like?

Over the summer we worked tirelessly to prepare our laboratories to operate in a Covid-secure manner. Although at the time of writing the University has temporarily suspended face-to-face teaching, including all of our in-lab practicals, we are using this time to ensure all our spaces are as safe as we can possibly make them for when students return.

While many activities will be delivered online using some of our range of remote practical methods, there is often no substitute for in-person practical teaching. We thought it was important to show just what it is like to prepare and deliver in-person lab teaching in the present time, and to record for the future just how we had to operate in 2020.

Benches are safely spread out, maintaining social distancing, and clearly labelled if safe to use. All equipment that students need is laid out for them in advance, to avoid mixing around the room. If we have PCs available in the labs, we are avoiding printing paper labsheets, just to remove another potential virus transmission surface.


Students using the electronics lab pictured above would normally share a workbench with a lab partner. However, they are now working individually, and to ensure they stay 2m apart during the whole session (up to 2 hours), the capacity has been reduced from 144 to just 26. This has resulted in many benches being left empty to ensure social distancing, although excitingly they can be used for remotely accessible lab equipment (hopefully another blog post on this to follow soon!).

We have a thorough cleaning regime in place between every session. Students are expected to wipe down everything that they have touched with a suitable cleaning agent, and will usually be supervised by staff to ensure they do a thorough job. To make sure the cleaning process is comprehensive and effective, there are clear divisions of responsibility for staff and students, with checklists, so that nothing can be forgotten.

Some labs wanted to increase their capacity to maintain as much teaching as possible. The best way to do this was to grow into the library-managed study spaces! On the right are some wind tunnnel rigs, set up at a suitably distanced spacing when used individually. On the left, what is usually "group study" space is now additional workspace for students to write up observations or process data, while keeping a safe distance.


Before students arrive at the lab, we have prepared guidance on what they should expect and how they can work safely. This includes one-way systems, and frequent hand-washing. Here is a video for just one of our lab spaces - all of the different labs that we manage have produced something similar.


As well as all of these in-person lab sessions, we are very excited to have launched a whole range of activities that students can complete from wherever they are in the world. This includes a range of experimental hardware that students can control over the internet, alongside take home kits with custom designed parts - we will write more about this here in future blog posts.

Ten Tips for Blended Practicals

Practical Engineering Education activities, that usually involve interaction with equipment, presented a significant challenge to adapt for remote delivery during the suspension of face to face teaching. The department of Multidisciplinary Engineering Education (MEE) have led the discussion about Remote Practicals in the Learning and Teaching community, publishing papers and being invited to present at numerous, high profile webinars.

With restrictions on higher education being partially lifted, many institutions worldwide intend to offer blended learning, prioritising in-person activities that are troublesome to deliver online, such as practicals. Social distancing measures are reducing capacity and placing increased pressure on space, creating a need to optimise limited time students have in the lab and strategies to determine which activities can best utilise this limited resource. Time is constrained and solutions are needed to meet these demands.

I’m delighted to present this publication, in which MEE have utilised their experiences in practical teaching to provide ideas for blended practicals which maximise students’ learning and experiences within the envelope of available resources. It is densely packed with practicable tips that can be implemented in most institutions for most practicals. 

Download the preprint here:
https://www.preprints.org/manuscript/202009.0333/v1

I sincerely hope you find some of it helpful. 


The file is currently hosted on Google drive until the pre-print server generates a DOI.


Software Tools for Electronic Engineering Remote Practicals

Electronics concepts are some of the hardest to visualise, even in the laboratory; it is hard to see the electrons as they whizz through the wires and even more difficult to "see" the electromotive force! Tools like oscilloscopes and network analysers allow powerful visualisation of electronic effects, but using them proficiently has a steep learning curve.

Electronic engineers have long embraced simulation as a design tool. However, it is generally taught as a complementary skill to laboratory training, rather than to actually teach practical experimentation. While access to teaching laboratory spaces is limited, simulation tools can be not only a professional skill, but a valuable method of teaching students to be good experimentalists and designers. Simulations can let us visualise normally unseen effects, and probe circuits in unnatural places, all in complete safety.

In the planned practicals programme for EEE modules at the University of Sheffield, we plan to use simulation tools as part of a balanced diet of in-lab activitites, videos, datasets, remote access to in-lab equipment and hopefully take-home kits. This blog post concentrates on the simulation tools that we've tried and tested successfully, in the hope of helping others looking for remote practical inspiration.

Which Tool Should I Use?

There's a running theme to recent blog posts - always think about the activity learning outcomes.

If you want students to focus on real-world style circuit construction, choose a tool that provides that realistic interface. If you want students to gather data for presentation and analysis, provide pre-built circuit diagrams in a simple tool, rather than forcing them to also learn how to use virtual breadboards.

So, my recommendations are:
  • To directly replace a construction and production skills task - Tinkercad
  • To prepare students for practical hands-on Arduino/breadboard circuit construction - Tinkercad
  • To gather and record data numerically or graphically - LTSpice
  • To design experiments using real world devices - LTSpice
Tinkercad


An in-browser simulation platform, that allows drag and drop circuit construction. Constructing circuits looks and feels just like in-lab work, with breadboards, wires, components and common pre-built PCBs with sensors.



The outstanding special feature is support for both Arduino hardware and software - the simulator can emulate Arduino code just like the standard desktop editor, including most common libraries and the serial monitor interface. Code is easily copied between simulation and real microcontroller programming, allowing truly blended learning.

Tinkercad's built-in tutorials have excellent video content and can be embedded in a VLE, saving teachers time to concentrate on setting interesting assignments. For example, I asked students to complete 4 of the 6 built-in tutorials, then set an open-ended challenge to construct a temperature sensing circuit using buttons, LEDs, a buzzer and an analogue sensor. An example project meeting those specifications is embedded below.




This system replicates real equipment so well that it is ideal for replacing design projects - providing the brief is constrained to only require the range of parts available in the simulator. However the oscilloscope is not overly useful or representative of real instruments.

LTSpice


Clunky and not very intuitive interface, but powerful for simulation. LTSpice uses the tried and tested SPICE simulation methods to simulate circuits formed from discrete components and integrated modules. Circuits are drawn using standard circuit symbols, before simulation in time or frequency domains. There is no "real-time" simulation, so students won't see LEDs light up or motors spin, but they can explore voltage and current waveforms anywhere in any circuit, to aid understanding.


There is little built-in tutorial material, but I have recently made a 9-part series of tutorial exercises for first year students that will be open-sourced online soon - watch this space or leave a comment to find out more.

LTSpice can produce superb parameter sweep plots and data tables, making it great for data analysis and experimentation. For example, I have asked students to simulate resonant circuits and op-amp based oscillators. The students must choose their own frequency sweep parameters to ensure they gather enough data to clearly see features of interest, meeting learning outcomes in experimental design.

Circuitlab


A similar style to LTSpice but runs in a web browser. Fewer components available, especially in terms of ICs. However, the ease of use (no downloads required and more familiar keyboard shortcuts) can outweigh this for simple experiments.


There are a few example circuits already made, but there is little tutorial material overall, and some of the projects seem unfinished (the open source textbook with examples is a great idea), so the overall product does not have the complete shine of some of these other solutions. But for quick and straightforward design or measurement activities, the ease of use still makes this software a viable candidate for teaching.

Fritzing


Not quite free, it now asks for a small fee (open-source does not mean free!), but a leading open-source circuit layout designer.


Fritzing has a great visual interface, which is really easy to use. There is plenty of support from the Maker community as well, who have adopted Fritzing for sharing circuit designs. However, there is a major component missing - Fritzing does not include a simulator. Fritzing does not even include an option to export a file to run in an alternative simulator.

If the lack of simulator can be overlooked, Fritzing offers a simple PCB design experience on top of the visual component editor. This could make a great virtual introduction to PCB design, if simulated testing is not required.

Do you know of more good tools?
Leave a comment below to share your favourite tools - we'd love to know what you are using and how you are using it.

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