WMU News

NSF grant funds online electronics lab for engineers

March 16, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- The National Science Foundation is so keen on Western Michigan University's new engineering initiative that, after reviewing a funding request for the project, agency officials urged faculty members leading the effort to increase the amount requested and speed the pace of their research.

The result is a new $139,045 award to WMU--up nearly $40,000 from the original amount requested--that will be used to develop a teaching laboratory that will offer students online access to an actual working laboratory. The effort, eventually targeted for national dissemination, will be showcased by the NSF at a national engineering conference in June.

Dr. Johnson Asumadu and Dr. Ralph Tanner, both faculty members in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, are using the funding to develop a Remote Wiring and Measurement Laboratory that will allow students to physically build electrical circuits and perform real measurement of outputs through Internet access. The result could be a Web-based electrical engineering course that will allow students to benefit from the same hands-on lab experimentation they would experience if they were physically on campus.

"This is not a simulation or a virtual lab," says Tanner, professor of electrical and computer engineering. "This is a real lab that will allow people to try their hand at wiring. They will build a circuit online and our software will physically make the connections in a real lab. If they've made a mistake that results in a short circuit, they'll smoke the power supply and have to begin again." He notes that expensive components in the lab would be fused to prevent damage.

According to Asumadu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, the teaching of electronics and circuit construction theory must be accompanied by providing students an opportunity to physically construct a circuit and measure the output in a series of lab experiments.

Producing a schematic that outlines the design is easier than actually figuring out how to do it and make it work, he says. Simulations, which have been available for years, are no substitute for the real experience.

"In simulations, you can observe what is happening, but you don't do any original work," Asumadu notes. "With this system, the students will have total control of the outcome. If they don't figure it out the first time, they can keep on practicing until they get it right."

The pair is developing what they call a "virtual breadboard" that students can access online. The "breadboard," as it commonly known by engineers, is a board on which circuits are constructed in the lab. The board will appear on screen and through a "click and drag" function, students will select a power source and connect components of differing capacities. Once a student has built a circuit on screen, the software will physically make the connections in a lab on campus and record output. If students blow a fuse, the lab will be configured to automatically reset the fuse, once the component is released. In addition, the software will be configured to allow for complex circuitry that requires multiple wiring decisions by the student.

This fall, Asumadu and Tanner will begin using the new lab in an on-campus course. They will conduct a double blind study of the lab's effectiveness by weekly selecting half of the students to do lab work online. The grading professor will not know which students completed lab work online and which did their work while actually in the lab.

The pair also will be evaluating the level of difficulty their online laboratory will accommodate as well as the student response to building circuits without physically being in the laboratory.

In 2002, Asumadu and Tanner will do additional testing by working with engineering faculty at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Asumadu is a former faculty member there and says one of the biggest advantages of the remote access to an electronic laboratory will be that it will enable students from small colleges without laboratory facilities to learn electronic fundamentals and progress to upper level courses.

In June, the work will be showcased by the NSF in Albuquerque, N.M., at the annual meeting of the American Society for Engineering Education, a leading professional organization for college and university engineering educators.

Media contact: Cheryl Roland, 616 387-8400, cheryl.roland@wmich.edu

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