Mar 11 2022

Universities Reimagine Teaching Labs for a Virtual Future

Schools are replacing take-home lab kits with more advanced virtual options that allow students to access industry-grade equipment.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of university teaching labs worldwide. Students in STEM classes stopped using industry-grade equipment on campus, and instead tried to problem-solve independently with take-home kits that provided limited functionality.

As classroom instruction moved from in-person to virtual, professors and teaching assistants quickly realized this new learning experience created many challenges. Real-time instruction and hands-on experience gave way to students trying to solve problems independently.

“This take-home lab setup left students in the dark, making the experience difficult, which led to a lot of frustration,” says Kevin T. Kornegay, an Internet of Things security professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md.

EXPLORE: How higher education is transforming for the hybrid future.

Soon after, engineering professors at Morgan State began using more advanced virtual lab options, which allowed students to access industry-grade lab equipment. The students could use an oscilloscope, a digital multimeter, a power supply and a function generator. The students logged on remotely to a cloud-based platform and followed the instructor’s video feed to get real-time guidance and feedback.

Morgan State is just one in a growing number of schools reimagining teaching labs for a virtual future. As professors and department chairs navigate this new learning frontier, they are finding novel ways to replicate the in-person lab experience with virtual options. This teaching shift marks just the beginning.

According to an Ipsos survey for the World Economic Forum, 72 percent of respondents predict that hybrid learning models will be the norm by 2025. By enlisting remote-access teaching lab capabilities, universities ensure that students receive hands-on industry experience regardless of their physical locations. With fully modernized labs, schools can expand their reach and influence on students in STEM fields of study.

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Delivering a Virtual Experience for STEM Students

Hands-on industry experience is critical for students in STEM. “Take-home test bench kits may suffice for first- and second-year engineering undergraduate students taking introductory courses, but as topics become more sophisticated, industry-grade equipment is imperative,” says Kornegay.

Paige Harvey, a lab manager at Morgan State, explains that during the university’s switch to a virtual educational model, staffers looked for applications that would enable students to get acclimated to industry-grade lab equipment, even if connecting from home. While teaching in her lab, Harvey uses Keysight’s Smart Bench Essentials to configure, control and monitor multiple bench instruments from a single screen. Students then access the lab equipment remotely with their peers to test, analyze and share data.

“A student can go in and request a virtual lab slot at 8 p.m., and then I can oversee the student’s data and measurement input in real time. I can chat with the student to guide them as needed, which allows me to get a full sense of whether the student understands key concepts,” says Harvey.

Monitoring the students’ data input in real time provides a window into the actual active learning experience. Students can move on to more complex topics once they understand the core concepts. Students come to that learning moment even while working remotely, explains Kornegay. Students find value in their exercises when the entire lab experience comes together. “We all have a broad range of students with different learning modalities, from auditory or visual to tactical,” he says. “To truly enrich these students, we need to present the information in one way or another and cater to each student’s needs.”

FIND OUT: The difference between VR, AR and XR, and how they can transform online learning.

Transforming Labs into Modern Innovation Hubs

As the global pandemic forced professors and department chairs to adapt to a new learning frontier, it shined a spotlight on new methods to remotely replicate the in-person lab experience. It shifted the university lab from a traditional learning center to a futuristic innovation hub.

“Electrical engineering, after all, is at the heart of just about every technology revolution, including autonomous vehicles, quantum computing and energy,” writes Doug Baney, corporate director of education for education for Keysight Technologies, in a company blog post. “Labs are critical to exposing students to the tools needed to enable future innovations.”

Sean Hum, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto, recently outfitted an experiential lab with industry-grade test bench instruments with remote capabilities to attract second-year engineering students to a hardware design course. According to Hum, “Our core idea in developing this laboratory was to provide students with anytime, anywhere testing capabilities similar to what their peers in software can enjoy. The instruments are remotely accessible, meaning students can set up experiments on the bench and remotely test them anytime they wish.”

But just as important to Hum was the physicality of the lab. “We really wanted to have a bench for students to be able to test their designs. We feel like students need this experience despite the proliferation of virtual lab products. There is this notion in our university and companies that hire our graduates that true electronics and communications engineers touch hardware. Those same companies are expecting our graduates to have hands-on experience in hardware and testing.”

Headshot of Sean Hum
Our core idea in developing this laboratory was to provide students with anytime, anywhere testing capabilities similar to what their peers in software can enjoy. "

Sean Hum Professor and Eugene V. Polistuk Chair in Electromagnetic Design at the University of Toronto

Building STEM Labs Without Limitations

By blending both physical test benches and remote capabilities, Hum and his colleagues are enabling a maker culture at the University of Toronto to inspire students for years to come. Hum says the school’s new lab and instrumentation help students develop everything from solar-powered vehicles to cube sets and embedded IoT devices. Students can access that equipment remotely anytime. And over at Morgan State, which is making a push to expand its global footprint by offering students studying abroad remote lab access, students will soon be able to access their test benches from long distances. “We go to great lengths to ensure that our students have the resources and support they need to develop their skills and keep innovating,” Kornegay says.

DISCOVER: How institutions are expanding support for underserved STEM students.

As universities are reimagine labs for virtual use, future STEM leaders learn new skills from navigating in-person and remote labs interchangeably. “I find the accessibility to the remote lab platform at all times of the day the most valuable,” says Oluwatosin Adeyeri, a senior electrical and computer engineering major at Morgan State. “It makes things a lot more flexible and accessible with everyone’s different schedules.”

With these new lab setups giving students 24/7 remote access to industry-grade equipment, professors and their students are ushering in a new era of STEM education. This new way of learning is pushing boundaries and driving a culture of future engineers empowered to innovate new ideas faster and more collaboratively.

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