COVID-19: The quandary of teaching a hands-on lab from afar

Electronic lab engineer on laptop
Several universities have successfully leveraged NI’s educational laboratory virtual instrument suite (NI Elvis), a project-based learning tool that combines instrumentation, embedded design, and web connectivity, to migrate their hands-on labs to an online experience. (golubovy/istock/Getty Images Plus)

Even under the best of circumstances, figuring out how to meaningfully recreate a hands-on engineering lab experience in a virtual environment isn’t easy. National Instruments, a provider of automated test equipment and virtual instrumental software, is working with several universities to provide students access to remote laboratory equipment with no need to step foot in a classroom.

The requirement to move to online learning happened almost overnight for many colleges and universities, leaving most instructors scrambling. Factor in the need to teach a hands-on lab remotely—a staple of engineering programs--and the challenge seems practically insurmountable.

But several universities, including Oklahoma State University, Shanghai University, and the University of Virginia, in concert with National Instruments (NI), a provider of automated test equipment and virtual instrumentation software, have figured out a way to make a seamless transition and provide the students the experience of a hands-on lab from their own living rooms.

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A cornerstone of the initiative is NI’s educational laboratory virtual instrument Suite (NI Elvis), a project-based learning tool that combines instrumentation, embedded design, and web connectivity to teach engineering fundamentals and systems design. 

Using a web soft front panel, students can access seven instruments on the NI ELVIS III instantly via USB, Ethernet, or Wi-Fi, including an oscilloscope, function generator, logic analyzer, IV analyzer, and digital multimeter. Students can access the instruments on any device, computer, tablet, or cell phone without installing them. In addition to the soft front panels, NI ELVIS includes a best-in-class API that works with a variety of development options such as LabVIEW, Python, and C.

Oklahoma University is one institution that is successfully using ELVIS. It has a group of students from different states working on a lab to learn about the gain-bandwidth product and slew rate of an instrumentation amplifier that was connected to the ELVIS III Protoboard.

The students were able to run the lab using the oscilloscope and function generator from their individual homes, with the same experience they would have had in the lab. By using real instrumentation and real components, the students were able to observe real data, noise, and physical limits of real components.

“Using the Elvis III and Measurements Live, The Endeavor lab at Oklahoma University was able to rapidly switch from in-person labs to remote presence labs. The Elvis III allowed students direct access to real data and group work--all while maintaining remote distancing from each other. The NI ELVIS III allowed us to rapidly develop a remote lab that still provided students with the exposure and experience that only real-world equipment can provide.” said Dr. Joseph Conner, Professor, Oklahoma State University, in a statement provided by National Instruments.

Halfway across the world, Shanghai University of Science and Technology launched a targeted campaign through WeChat, inviting professors to log in and reserve an ELVIS III at Shanghai Tech. More than 50 researchers logged in to see an existing distance learning setup using NI ELVIS III. Over 500 students at Shanghai Tech have logged into the remote learning system to complete their coursework.

 “NI's advanced and innovative technology platform, along with technical its support, helped Shanghai Tech set up remote laboratories to ensure students could finish their semesters during the COVID19 pandemic, NI allowed software access, free of charge, to teachers and students, which shows NI’s commitment to social responsibility,” said Liu  Chuang, Professor, Shanghai University of Science and Technology

The University of Virginia is taking a different approach by using NI’s Analog Discovery 2 (AD2), a USB-powered device that enables a user to build and test circuits from anywhere. The pocket-sized device gives students access to a 100 MS/s oscilloscope, a logic analyzer and six other instruments.

“Thanks to the speedy help of NI, we were able to transition our studio classes in Electrical and Computer Engineering to an online format within a week. We transitioned from Virtual Bench-based in-class experiments to at-home based experiments based on the Analog Discovery 2. We had to modify some parts of the experiments, but that was straightforward to do.

The students really like the AD2, and some have even asked if they can keep them even when they come back! For us, the help of NI was a game changer in keeping our studio instruction going and the AD2 was the perfect solution,” said Professor Harry Powell, University of Virginia, Electrical and Computer Engineering, in a statement provided by NI.   

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