• September 2, 2014

Goodbye, Podium: an Engineering Course Puts Theory Into Practice

Goodbye, Podium: an Engineering Course Puts Theory Into Practice

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

I don't do lectures anymore. Not in the usual sense. And I've never had so much fun teaching.

If I get an idea at home for my electronics-instrumentation class, I plug my Mobile Studio IOBoard—a small, inexpensive circuit board that allows students to do multiple electronics tasks without a lot of bulky equipment—into my laptop. I then build a circuit activity, record a lecture, add a paper-and-pencil exercise and an appropriate computer model, and I'm all done. I don't have to wait until I get to the campus and find an open time in my lab. I can even ask a TA or a former student or a colleague at another university for feedback. The students can carry out their experiments anywhere, I can do my work anywhere, and I can get help from anyone because we all have the same set of simple, mobile learning tools.

Students get the same lectures I would give in person, but the focus is on doing things with the information rather than sitting passively and watching someone else demonstrate. When we meet for a two-hour session, they've already listened to the lecture, sketched out a circuit diagram, done some calculations. They're ready to build and test a circuit at their desks, or may have done part of the activity at home. The recorded lectures become one more tool for the students to consult to help them through the experiments. One of my friends who teaches at a university in Utah won't let students into her electromagnetic-theory class until they prove they've watched the lecture; they also have to bring proof that they've done the reading and some kind of homework.

The whole point is to use the class time well.

When students complete a lab experiment at home or in a staffed lab on campus, they come to class better able to explain what they've done and why they think the approach is correct, and to provide explanations or questions about any problems they encountered.

What is so cool is that the learning experience has all the key aspects of the complete engineering-design cycle—no matter where the students do the work. The combination of traditional paper-and-pencil calculations, simulation, and experimentation leading to a practical system model makes it possible for them to think and act much more like practicing engineers.

Here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we call this hands-on approach the Mobile Studio Project (mobilestudioproject.com). The concept grew out of some fantastic but hideously expensive studio classrooms (about $10,000 per seat) that RPI built in the 1990s to bring multiple engineering activities into one well-outfitted room. Each station had a full set of lab equipment, a desktop computer, and tables for taking lecture notes and doing hand calculations. There was a natural progression from introducing a topic and advancing to paper and pencil, simulation, and experiments, with breaks for group and one-on-one discussions. Maybe there was an hour of lecture or maybe 10 minutes, but after that the class would try something. More often than not, the class began with a demonstration or a hands-on activity. You'd build, you'd talk.

It was so much fun. I just loved it. We thought we'd ushered in a new way of teaching. But very few engineering schools adopted this model because it was so expensive and the studio classrooms held just 30 to 40 people. Our enrollments went up, and we had more students than we knew what to do with. The model simply was not scalable, even for us.

With the advent of laptops, we realized we didn't need a special studio room. We could do all the activities except those that required access to lab equipment. We just had to figure out a way to add that capability to the students' laptops. We tried a variety of existing options, mostly involving some kind of inexpensive data-acquisition board, but either they did not have the functionality we needed or they were much too expensive. And then we discovered we were at one of those magical crossroads where it became possible to imagine that every engineering student could be given his or her own personal mobile electronics laboratory.

What happened? A combination of better and cheaper electronics, strong leadership, and financial support from the National Science Foundation and industry led Rensselaer—with help from Howard University and the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology—to develop the Mobile Studio.

The latest version of the Mobile Studio hardware costs about $150 per student—cheap enough that every engineering student gets his or her own board. (For information on acquiring the hardware, visit the project's Web site.) So now we can take a studio approach in any decent classroom. More important, when students learn with Mobile Studio, their homework and test scores go up and learning improves, as documented by the University at Albany Evaluation Consortium, which provides independent assessment of research and pedagogy.

The most exciting results come from synthesis questions in which students are required, for example, to design a circuit with a specific functionality. Students who work with the Mobile Studio have significantly higher scores than those who do not.

Students can pursue their own ideas, build something, and then try it either just for their own satisfaction or, in my class, for more points. This style of teaching closely resembles the way engineers do their jobs and allows the students to achieve understanding based on what they do best.

Once students could do labs at home, the new technology suddenly opened up dimensions we hadn't thought of before. Courses that never had lab experiments have them now. For example, mechanical- and civil-engineering majors learn circuits through minilabs that might last 20 minutes. Students can now be asked to do homework involving hardware. They can also tinker at their own projects.

As I said, if I get an idea at home, I just set up my Mobile Studio, build the circuit, and see what happens. I don't have to wait for the classroom. This is the direction in which engineering education is going. New modes of delivery made possible by an ever increasing array of products will make the present way we teach unrecognizable. I might never need to stand behind a podium again.

Kenneth A. Connor is a professor in the department of electrical, computer, and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and director of its Mobile Studio Project.

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