Reimagined lab work changes engineering courses

A 'robot butler.' built by mechatronics engineering students at Western, picks up a bottle of water. (submitted photo)

Even before the pandemic struck, engineering professor Michael Naish had been pondering ways to work through the heavy student demand for time in the mechatronics lab.

Those months of planning gave him a head start during this fall’s transition to remote labs for mechatronics engineering students except those in their fourth year.

“We had started the process of thinking ‘how do we reframe the kinds of the projects students need to do so they can do it from home?’” said the founder of Western’s Mechatronic Systems Engineering program, which has seen explosive growth since launching in 2012.

“We were thinking about moving out of the lab, and then we were forced to do it,” he said.

Along with electrical and computer engineering technician Eugene Porter, Naish had already been trying to develop a foundational “base kit” with inexpensive equipment, when COVID-19 struck.

“We are trying to keep things in line with the cost of a textbook,” he said.

On top of those base kits, which most engineering students will purchase to participate in labs this fall, Naish and his team have been building “robot kits” to send to students registered for his second-year design course, Mechatronics Systems Engineering – MSE 2202, which starts in January.

In that 70-student class (up from last year’s 22), teams of students will build a robotic device using a small circuit board with a microcontroller and then program it to perform tasks.

One year, they built a device that could deliver mail. Another year, they created a “robot butler” that could retrieve a water bottle from a table and bring it to a different room.

“We have ambitious targets for them and they work hard to try to reach them,” said Naish. “Most of the groups don’t quite get there, but that’s OK. Failure is always a big part of this.

“It’s when things don’t go right — whether it’s that they thought the thing was going to move a certain way and it doesn’t and they have to redesign it, or they’ve written code that doesn’t work and they have to figure out how to make it work — that’s where the bulk of the learning happens,” he said.

Professor Michael Naish

Professor Michael Naish

Normally, teams of students work in groups of four. But since they can’t physically get together this year, each will be expected to build a separate robot.

To facilitate student success, he plans to make the assignments simpler and provide additional virtual support.

“We are going to have to figure out how to develop our online troubleshooting skills and support mechanisms,” said Naish, who plans to hold design meetings on a videoconferencing platform and have students collaborate in their own groups.

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Naish is part of a task force trying to develop best online practices and says Western engineering instructors have come up with many innovative solutions.

He has seen plans for simulation experiments and choose-your-own adventure scenarios, which require students to click specific options to observe different outcomes.

“It was one thing to transition in March . . . but now expectations are a lot higher because we’ve had time and resources to try to develop proper online courses,” said Naish.

It isn’t replicating what we had in the lab before, it’s re-imagining what we had in the lab before.” ~ Engineering professor Michael Naish

Where safety concerns make it impossible do labs at home, some professors will record themselves doing experiments, then post video for students to analyze.

Fluid mechanics professor, Eric Savory, is planning an experiment that requires a hose, a faucet and a bucket — items students may have or can find at the hardware store, said Naish.

Civil engineering professor Ayman El Ansary has worked with Western’s Information Technology Group to arrange for his graduate Finite Element Method students to remotely access software that they would normally use in a computer lab.

El Ansary did the same for his third-year students last March, ensuring his teaching assistants were accessible and available online to help.

“We tried as much as we could to create the same environment and it worked,” said El Ansary, who has been meeting virtually with students in his role as associate chair of graduate professional programs to collect their feedback about online classes.

What he has learned from the meetings is that students are most successful when they feel engaged in a course, meaning they form connections with each other, the instructor and content..

To boost engagement in his own course, El Ansary plans to hold live sessions with students to answer questions about lectures he’ll post earlier in the week. “It’s double the time, but it will create the best learning experience for our students.”

Adapting and redesigning course material is all part of the process, said Naish, who continues to work with Western’s Centre for Teaching and Learning to transition the course material.

“This whole exercise of moving courses online is forcing profs to look at how they are delivering the course in the first place,” he said. “It’s valuable to reassess the way we are developing the courses. In the end, we’ll have better courses, even if we can get back to the classroom.”

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