By Denise Restauri
Erin Webster is a Computer Engineering Graduate Student, University of Massachusetts Lowell. Along with Jay Weitzen, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UMass-Lowell, and technology companies Analog Devices and Digilent, she is creating a “Lab In A Box” – a new way of getting students excited about electrical and computer engineering for the 21st century.
“Engineers are a driving force in the global economy. We need more engineers. We need better engineers, and we need diversity in our engineers. Across the board many incoming engineering freshmen don’t have enough hands-on experience when they arrive at college. This gap is largest among female students and students from less affluent backgrounds. My goal is to fix this.
What do you think is one of the most important things in the world that needs to be fixed?
Engineers apply theory to solve real world problems. We need to provide engineering students, not only with math, physics, and engineering theory, but significant design and hands-on lab experiences so that they are ready for the technology jobs of the 21st century.
Traditionally in higher education, there has been a belief that students need to finish taking foundation classes like calculus, physics and chemistry before they are introduced to solving engineering problems in their majors. This often results in first year students feeling like they are drowning in pure theory and this often causes them to lose sight of why they chose engineering in the first place. They get discouraged and lose interest in the program, often changing majors or dropping out of college. Students need interesting, fun and challenging hands on projects during their first year and throughout their education in order to keep them engaged and enthusiastic about engineering.
Plus, first year students arrive at college with large variations in their amount of hands on experience. Students from more affluent backgrounds often have significant exposure to programming and electronics during high school while their less affluent counterparts have little to none. This also applies to female engineering students who are often not exposed to the same engineering experiences in high schools, especially hands-on lab experiences. If the gaps in hands-on experience are not closed during the first year, they will widen and students may fall further and further behind.
It’s therefore critical to give our first year students better ways to gain significant hands-on lab and open ended design experiences. The traditional engineering lab model runs up against cost and logistical barriers. There is a saying in engineering education: “Textbooks are cheap but lab equipment is expensive.” Engineering laboratories are expensive to run and maintain. An engineering lab with about 10 workbenches, which means that you work in two to three person teams rather than on your own, costs between $50,000 – $100,000, and rapidly becomes obsolete as technology advances. Every lab has to be staffed and the equipment maintained. Due to this high cost, lab time is a strictly scheduled commodity. Most students in a laboratory course get two or three hours of access to this equipment per week; and it is difficult for students to get extra time if they need it or want to use it to experiment or just play.
Students need inexpensive and scalable ways to get the hands-on experience they need to succeed and to close the experience gap during the freshman year. And they need this experience to be available to them on their terms and schedules so that they can work, innovate, experiment, create and play 24/7.
What will it look like when it’s fixed?
We’ll level the playing field and in the process improve retention, add value to potential employers of our engineering graduates, and increase the number of female engineering students. As a successful female engineering student, I found too often I was the only female in my lab sections. I saw many of my female engineering friends become discouraged at the challenges due to the gap in their incoming hands-on learning experience and leave engineering to pursue other passions. I want to see successful female engineers as the norm.
My vision is that every engineering student works with their own “Lab In A Box” instead of their engineering text book.
A Lab In A Box has most of the capabilities of the standard electronics test bench, costs about the same as an engineering text book and allows students to take as much time as they want to do the experiments. The Lab In A Box contains an Analog Discovery Kit (USB device that functions as an oscilloscope, function generator, power supply, logic analyzer and voltmeter), a Parallax Board of Education (an easy to program microprocessor board), and a parts kit (basic electronic components).
Because they only need a computer to use the kit, students can take it anywhere: dorms, dining halls and even outdoors. Students can repeat experiments, take extra time, innovate, tinker and try their own projects. This flexibility allows faculty to create more open-ended design in the experiments. An open-ended project requires the student to come up with their own solution to a problem rather than follow a rigid set of procedures. We’ve found that each student needs a different amount of time to complete open-ended design projects, often more than the three hours per week they have with the equipment in the traditional lab. With the Lab In A Box every student uses the equipment on their own, so that every student gets the hands on experience that employers seek in their engineers (rather than in a team where often the weaker students do not participate).
What are you doing to help fix it?
Here at UMass-Lowell, we are helping to beta test the Analog Discovery module in our first year Intro to Electrical and Computer Engineering course. Working with Professor Jay Weitzen, I wrote open-ended design experiments that introduced electronic circuits, programming and the use of test equipment. We focused on keeping it fun while helping the students strengthen their problem solving, design, electronics, programming, and test equipment skills.
The model we plan to use is that each engineering student will purchase their Lab In A Box at the start of their first year. The total cost will be on the order of a single engineering text book. They will use the Lab In A Box for their entire four years at UMass-Lowell. Having each student purchase their own “lab” ensures that every student gets the hands-on lab experience that employers require. Students can work on projects when and where they want, not just for homework, but to tinker or develop new products.
We ran our new hands-on curriculum during the 2013 spring semester, and we’ve already begun to see results. Our retention rate for the semester rose from the usual 83 percent to 91 percent and students self-reported that they enjoyed the labs and felt like they learned new skills. Many also said that talking about these labs during interviews helped them get summer internships.
We are currently introducing this curriculum and the Analog Discovery module to several universities we work with in India. I have been to India three times to help set up labs and teach at colleges we work with there: the B. V. Raju Institute of Technology and the Shri Vishnu Engineering College for Women. What I loved about teaching with the Discovery module in India was that it ran off a laptop. In India when there is a power outage or a rolling blackout– both common occurrence throughout India – a traditional lab has to stop and wait for the power to come back on, but a lab running with Discovery kits and laptops can keep going for hours. The other great part for India was the price. Labs are often overcrowded, with old, outdated, broken or even no test equipment. This allows a university to convert an existing computer lab to an electronics lab for a relatively small amount of money. There is no substitute for hands-on experience; you cannot compensate with more theory and books, which is why breaking that price barrier is so crucial.
What can others do to help fix it?
Encourage the girls in your life to go into engineering and science fields. It is a misnomer that engineers need to love math, rather they need to be able to use it as a tool to solve problems. Engineers need to love to solve difficult problems, to create new things, to innovate. Don’t wait to start this conversation until they’re looking at colleges; start early. For every doll you buy for her, buy some blocks, or a science kit too. Volunteer to do science experiments with the Girl Scouts in your community as well as the Boy Scouts. In middle school and high school, make sure they work to develop strong math skills and encourage them to explore the sciences and find what interests them.