Hands-on learning at a distance

Additional funding from the Office of the Provost allowed Arda Gozen, who teaches manufacturing enterprise systems, to purchases two new robotic arms for students to use as part of the class.

Faculty across the WSU system are rising to the challenges of distance learning by finding new ways to deliver hands-on experiences to students where they live.

To date, the Office of the Provost has distributed more than $100,000 in grants to support faculty system-wide purchasing new technology to make laboratory exercises more engaging for students. Faculty have also received funding to assemble and send kits of supplies to students that they can use to do exercises similar to those they would otherwise do in-person.

Amanda Hohner, an assistant professor in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is among the WSU faculty creating learning experiences for students to perform at home. She is distributing kits with tools to measure water quality to her students after they expressed a desire to have as much of a hands-on experience as possible.

“We typically have students collect samples from streams and then analyze the samples on campus,” Hohner said. “This semester, the students are collecting tap water at their homes and looking at different metrics to determine the quality of the water they are drinking every day.”

The first experiment has students analyzing the premise plumbing in their home to determine the recommended time for flushing their water system to prevent the consumption of stagnant water, which could potentially lead to elevated levels of lead or copper in their drinking water. A second experiment involves measuring the chlorine concentration in their tap water, ensuring it’s enough to prevent bacteria from growing in the distribution system pipes. Hohner is also filming demonstrations of experiments for students to watch on their laptops.

“We’re not trying to replicate what we would be doing in lab,” Hohner said. “These are new activities that are important to cover and can easily be conducted at home.”

This fall’s Mechanical Engineering 401 students will also conduct experiments at home using lab kits funded by the Provost’s Office. When it came to deciding what could be done with students at a distance, faculty in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering agreed that the additional financial burden couldn’t be put on students.

“With that decided, we asked ourselves, ‘How can we provide the same basic principles taught in our mechatronics course with the lowest cost kit we could find?’” said John Swensen, an assistant professor in the school.

The 61 students in Swensen’s class this fall are getting an array of light emitting devices as well as sensors, three different kinds of motors and a microprocessor. With these components, students will be able to learn about the fundamental relationships between different systems in engineering.

“In our college, the motto for our students is Work Ready, Day One,” Swensen said. “That requires giving students gobs of hands-on experience. If we didn’t do that, we would not only be failing to serve them, but the employers who trust that WSU is preparing its graduates for the workforce.”

Several proposals approved for additional funding by the Provost’s Office are for new technology to help professors teach lectures in more engaging ways. This includes new cameras and computers as well as transparent writing surfaces for professors to write notes that students can easily read and interpret.

This additional funding allowed Arda Gozen, who teaches manufacturing enterprise systems, to purchases two new robotic arms for students to use as part of the class.

During lab modules throughout the fall, students will be able to interface remotely with the robotic arms, guiding them through specific operations emulating automated manufacturing environments. They will program the arms to carry out tasks through machine vision capabilities without their input, which will give the students a greater understanding of how modern manufacturing uses automation and robotics.

The remote operation doesn’t require students to be in university labs. This is made possible using open-source tools, which are integrated into the course syllabus.

“We wanted to do it this way because this concept of the ‘internet of things’ – the interconnected web of computing devices spanning all aspects of everyday life – is very fundamental to new methods found in manufacturing industries,” Gozen said. “It’s a vital learning experience for our students in this rapidly changing manufacturing landscape.”

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