The remote practicals playbook

Since the suspension of face to face teaching at the University of Sheffield, like many other Higher Education institutions across the world, MEE has had to consider how to deliver our practical engineering education remotely without sacrificing learning outcomes. At the time we were denied access to our laboratories we had over 600 scheduled sessions remaining in the students' timetables to translate from an in-lab format to a remote format. This provided us with a broad collection of different tactics adopted by all of our staff. After some reflection, myself, Joanna Bates, Stephen Beck and Adam Funnell determined that we could identify six categories of approach to delivering remote practicals and wrote a paper on the subject which is available in pre-print. This has formed the basis for a resource we are referring to as the remote practicals playbook

When designing or redesigning any teaching activity, the starting point should always be to consider the method to most effectively fulfil the learning outcomes. This is no different when developing remote practicals or converting existing in-lab practicals to remote delivery.  The objective of the playbook is to align the six categories of remote practical with learning outcomes that may want to be achieved from a practical activity. 



The idea is that educators looking for a starting point can identify the learning outcomes they are hoping to achieve, refer to the playbook and gain inspiration about methods that may be effective. I have delivered a number of webinars on the subject recently and there appears to be significant interest in this idea. So for anyone wanting this resource, I can announce that it is now live here:

https://sites.google.com/sheffield.ac.uk/remote-practicals-playbook

Now for the caveats:

This is not designed to be a definitive set of answers to all problems, or a silver bullet for delivering perfect teaching. It is merely a collection of methods that we have used or considered using that may prove a useful resource for anyone struggling for ideas. It is also neither finished nor comprehensive. My intention is that we will add to it over time and as our experiences increase in a post-pandemic world. Finally, we are open to suggestions. MEE has expertise in practical engineering education, but we aren’t the only ones. If you feel that something useful has been missed or there is something you would like to see, do get in touch. We would love your feedback. I can be reached at a.garrard@sheffield.ac.uk.

How to get the fun into Electronics in a real and virtual world

“We love to make stuff and see it work………”  is a comment I have heard over many years both in a classroom setting and in University.

The number of opportunities presented in the world of Electronics at this time are arguably at their most abundant, for example, the electrification of household items and the widespread use of services such as ‘Alexa’ which have increased the number of electronic ‘smart’ or Internet Of Things (IOT) type items available for the home. So how do we grasp these opportunities and get our students engaged in activities which not only encourage learning but also give students the enjoyment factor?

My many years spent as a teacher of electronics in secondary schools in England showed me that youngsters in particular are easily distracted and turned away from electronics because of simple circuit failures which limit their confidence. Experience has shown that in general, students perceive electronics to be a hard subject and easily give up when faced with problems which are mostly simple to fix.

Getting over the confidence issue can be a tough prospect but I see my role as an educator to help students over this and give them the confidence they need to further their curiosity to become both independent and questioning learners.

Part of my work at The University of Sheffield has been to help to bridge the gap between the skills learned in schools and the skills required to be successful practical learners at University level.

I regularly run sessions for small groups of students where we simply build and test circuits. We do not spend a great deal of time on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ but concentrate on the ‘what’. This gives students the chance to be hands on with tools, equipment and components (with relevant health and safety) that they might not have regularly used without the fear factors which some students have with complex mathematics and circuit theory. I have found that once students have built successful and working circuits they then start to develop a level of curiosity which leads them into circuit theory and lets them understand the reason for the complex mathematics in a steady and controlled way.

An example of this is shown here, where I have provided the students with diagrams and components and asked them to use tools and equipment to build the circuit giving them a step-by-step guide:


        


https://sites.google.com/sheffield.ac.uk/diamond-electronics/3-building-and-testing-circuits/astable/building-an-astable-circuit 

I have normally run sessions like this over a period of eight weeks using a two hour slot per week, gradually reducing the amount of help given until students are able to build prototype circuits by just using circuit diagrams.

During the pandemic I have obviously not been able to complete face-to-face sessions. In order to continue with this initiative I have moved all of the sessions online by developing a google site which can be found at:

https://sites.google.com/sheffield.ac.uk/diamond-electronics/home

On this site I have not only developed circuits which students can build but I have also tried to cover some of the basic theory questions which many students have and also give examples of Electronic projects and methods for developing projects which students may enjoy to read and use.

Students are also encouraged to use circuit simulation software to build and test circuits as well as using traditional making methods.

Publishing regular (weekly) sessions via twitter utilising the University of Sheffield’s many twitter accounts has proven to be very successful:

 

                              




               

 The use of twitter has allowed a level of interaction with students where they can ask questions and be given advice such as where to source components or which simulation software to use.

 

Here are a few examples of some fun ideas which have been built using circuits contained in the google site:

 

        




I am hoping to continue to develop this initiative which will hopefully develop the confidence of many students in the field of electronics as well as having fun with building….

 

Jon Fullwood

BEd(Hons), PGC, MA, FHEA

Multidisciplinary Engineering Education

The University of Sheffield


Teaching development using final year projects

S.A.Hayes and J. Hopley.

Working in the Diamond opens up interesting possibilities when it comes to teaching, that I am not sure I have seen elsewhere, one of these is available via individual final year investigative projects. Often individual student projects are conducted in research groups, but here I don’t have a research group, so instead I use my teaching equipment within the Flight Simulation and Propulsion lab. The kit we have is state-of-the-art and we have the wonderful job of creating new practical experiences that meet the needs of our students. This continues to expand as we continually strive for the next development.

One thing I realised is that I could use these final year project students to develop equipment for their peers. Pedagogically this is quite interesting, as one student directly contributes their understanding to the development of other students. It is also interesting, as I can use it to develop the equipment we need for the next generation of labs, to meet our future needs. In practice, the student doing the project gives something to the students who use the equipment, but also the students who use the equipment validate the project. Facilitating this two-way communication of learning is a fascinating process, and watching projects grow as students develop can lead the project in unexpected directions. I will discuss two examples of this, one being the development of realistic flight control systems, and the other an instrumented petrol engine.

3 years ago, I started a project to implement force feedback into our flight simulators, to improve the realism of the simulators. I wanted to do this as I tutor students who are learning to fly, and enabling them to practice in realistic flight simulators would be very desirable. This project has slowly developed until now it is flyable, with the latest student, Josh, building a cockpit system for improved realism. Here are some of his thoughts on the process:

During my final year project, I was faced with the challenge of improving the realism of the current flight simulators in the Diamonds Flight Simulation and Propulsion Laboratory. After specialising in the aero propulsion stream, the more avionics focused task posed an exciting challenge which I was eager to tackle and to expand my knowledge. Through the project, my extensive levels of research helped me to acquire an in-depth knowledge of the topic. This coupled with my enthusiasm for the task really pushed me to take the project as far as I could in the time frame available.

Through my projects development I was able to acquire knowledge as to how other certified flight simulators function some aspects of which I was able to introduce into my own system. I was also able to improve the realism of the prior force feedback device and introduce aircraft controls such as a trim wheel and throttle plunger which was able to communicate with the simulator to provide a more realistic flying experience. With the progress that has been made in the project up to this point, I now envision the possibility of creating a fully certified yoke device and a full surrounding cockpit. This could then be developed further by future students who select this final year project.

Not only has this benefited my knowledge and understanding, but it has made me realise what a fantastic opportunity this project could provide to other students. With room for future development, more knowledge and understanding can be acquired by future students taking this project. In addition, aviation enthusiasts and students, particularly those taking the AER299 Ground and Flight Training module, can use the device to acquire more realistic and immersive flight training and could potentially acquire certified flight hours in the future. As a result, this final year project provides a unique concept like no other, whereby learning is continuous, and a closed loop is formed with both the developer and user benefiting from the projects development.

The developing cockpit simulator

In addition to this, we have running jet engines for students to use to make measurements as they study aircraft propulsion. We would also like a petrol engine, and again student projects give me the opportunity to develop the equipment that we require. The engine is a small radio-controlled model engine and, in keeping with the aerospace theme of the lab, drives a propeller. Students are developing systems to control the engine and measure thrust, fuel consumption and engine revs, with possible expansion to measuring cylinder pressure in the future. They thus get to work on a real engine, and again focus their work on the learning of their peers.

This process allows me to develop new equipment, much of which either doesn’t exist, or is prohibitively expensive. It allows me to teach students the fundamentals of engineering with live, important, and practical projects, hopefully enthusing them with practical engineering examples that directly relate to industry. But also, students get to write the user manual and lab sheet for equipment that they create, receiving feedback from users quickly for incorporation into future iterations of the work. This close relationship between different student and year groups, and the resultant feedback/feedforward dynamic in my view improves learning at all levels.

I find this process really interesting, because the students take the project that I define, and use their own experiences as students in earlier years, and conversations with their peers, to educate me as to what they did and did not know at that time. I can sit and define a project, but they can more easily relate to it from the perspective of other students. I would not have developed the cockpit at this stage, being contented with a force feedback controller, but Josh identified the desire of the students for added realism and took it forward, exceeding my expectations. Perhaps that is what I find most enjoyable as an academic, I am constantly surrounded by enthusiastic students who want to take control of their learning, while I stand as a facilitator gently guiding as they negotiate the developments, looking both forward to their future career and backwards to what they wanted when they were in the lower years.

Now if we could only get in the labs…

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