Digital experience: How Multidisciplinary Engineering Education delivered remote practicals during Covid-19

Digital experience is one of three education priorities in the University Vision. We are committed to designing and delivering a rich, multifaceted and inclusive digital teaching and learning environment that supports excellent and inspiring teaching and enables all students to engage effectively in their learning.

In the past year, we have seen a truly staggering increase in the use of digital technologies as part of the blended learning approach. We’re sharing some of your examples of innovative practice across the University to help us consider how we can continue to integrate digital and face-to-face learning in the future.

One outstanding example of innovative practice is that of the Multidisciplinary Engineering Education (MEE) team, a specialist department at the University dedicated to delivering practical teaching for all students in the Faculty of Engineering using large, shared laboratories and workshops.

Professor Stephen Beck, Head of Department explains that “We believe that the unique set up for the MEE team has allowed us to offer a much broader and complex suite of practical learning as part of the blended learning approach for engineering students than any other University in the UK.”

From early on in lockdown, the team started to record experiments and use these recordings to support the practical teaching across engineering disciplines. In September last year a paper on their approach was published.

With practical teaching being an integral part of courses within Engineering, how did the team ensure that students were able to gain and develop practical skills remotely? Here are some examples of the innovative ways educators in MEE have moved practical teaching activities from face-to-face to virtual delivery:

Take home kits

Take home kits, containing everything students need to build their own circuits and robotics at home, have provided the most tangible hands-on learning experiences. Dr Adam Funnell, academic lead for Computing, Control and Electronic engineering in The Diamond, and Ben Taylor, University Teaching Associate, explain more:

Adam: First year Electronic and Electrical Engineering students would normally work through a series of short circuit building exercises in the laboratory, culminating in a project to solder a printed circuit board including some components to their own design. This activity would not be possible remotely, but a take home kit of carefully selected electronics parts could still let students follow instructions to build circuits themselves.

The Computing, Control and Electrical Engineering theme in Multidisciplinary Engineering Education worked collaboratively to write a thorough safety case for take home kits, which has now been adopted across the faculty. It allows us to rapidly generate safety documents for practical work at home, when following guidelines on the tools and consumables required as parts of the kits.

The take home kits are based around an Arduino microcontroller, which the students would not normally get so much exposure to at the start of their degree. We have had to work on remotely supporting students using their own devices, and using online drop-in and bookable support sessions so that students can easily get live real-time help from staff.

Students have been telling peers on other courses how good the take home kits are, and those other students have been asking for kits of their own!

Dr Adam Funnell

Student satisfaction with the kits is incredibly high, as they provide the most tangible hands-on learning experience for remote practical learning. Using Blackboard Collaborate and Google Meet we have been able to efficiently support students from wherever they are learning - using a combination of screen sharing, webcams and discussion.

The feedback from students has been positive - they appreciate actually being able to build their own circuits and projects, and that no additional hardware of tools are required or assumed by the activities. Students have been telling peers on other courses how good the take home kits are, and those other students have been asking for kits of their own!

It is likely we will issue more take home kits in the future, and operate a blend of in-person sessions in our labs, using the kits alongside our standard benchtop equipment, with remote support sessions for students completing activities from home.

Kit of parts provided to the Mechatronics students

Ben: For the Automatic Control and Systems Engineering second year Mechatronics course, we have been using an Arduino with a kit of parts for a number of years, with students working in groups of three or four.

The course comprised a number of laboratory sessions to support the learning in the module, and a semester-long open ended design and build project, using the kits and a budget for the students to purchase extra parts. During the project, the students are expected to design a mechatronics system and manufacture this using the iForge facilities.

To adapt this to remote working, we rationalised the kit of parts and the exercises given to the students, and provided each student with their own Arduino Kit.

We also needed to develop a new robot arm device, which the students could make at home, using low cost components provided in the kit. This robot arm was used in a number of the replacement practical activities, based around the building of the arm, actuation and kinematic manipulation, and also formed the base for the mechanical system for the project.

The project activities were redeveloped to more open ended practical activities with the robot arm, such as pick and place of paper boxes and using the robot arm to move itself across different working surfaces.

We also developed a work package for the project, involving designing a robot arm in Fusion360 and simulating it in MATLAB robotics toolkit.

Prior to the pandemic, we were using a good blend of digital technologies to deliver the module, mainly based around the Blackboard platform, Google tools and computer based tools that were integral to the Arduino based work.

The biggest change in the use of digital technologies has been the delivery of this module, using synchronous lab sessions on Blackboard collaborate. This is no substitute for face-to-face lab sessions, but it did provide us with a platform to reach our students.

We have used video more for answering questions based around practical issues, where face-to-face interaction with the kit would have been the most appropriate method previously.

Prior to the pandemic, we were engaged in using digital technologies for the operation of the module. Other than the change of session delivery and the exercises, the use of digital technologies for packaging of materials, communicating with students, component ordering, document submissions and marking/checking have remained similar to previous years.

Generally the feedback for this module is very good, but the lack of face-to-face has harmed this. The students like the use of video when answering questions on practical issues. Going forward, we will use videos more widely to pre-answer many of the commonly asked questions, and commonly occurring problems.

This video from student Pablo Rodriguez shows the robot arm in practice:

Remote labs

Traditionally, Mechanical, Aerospace and General Engineering students would perform aerodynamics experiments using computer controlled wind tunnels.

When face-to-face teaching was suspended, it occurred to Dr Krys Bangert, a senior teaching technician in MEE, that the same remote desktop infrastructure used by IT Services to allow remote access to the Diamond computer room PC could be used to access the computer that controlled the wind tunnels. Students were able to log in remotely, launch the software on the computer connected to the wind tunnel and run all their experiments as if they were using the computer in the lab. Krys even set up a webcam to allow students to see inside the working section of the tunnel and watch the experiments take place.

Large student cohorts (200-600) normally have all the same laboratory session timetabled in the same week. This provides perfect alignment between lecture material and practical applications but requires high capacity labs which were impossible with social distancing.

We enabled a wide range of equipment for remote access and control - servo motor systems, wind tunnels, hot air ventilation systems, clean room probe stations and electronics test and measurement equipment. Students could remotely control devices and make measurements from wherever they are studying, just as if they were sat in front of the equipment in the lab.

Prior to the pandemic, we had never used remote access to our lab equipment before, and especially not at such scale. By collaborating with colleagues in IT Services, we used a customised web page to give students Remote Desktop access to our lab PCs, which then had a combination of custom-made hardware and software security features to ensure the experiments could proceed safely.

The feedback from students has been overwhelmingly positive, students appreciate that the experiment is real and live camera views of laboratory equipment are especially valued.

The biggest advantage of this approach has been flexibility for students. They can study in their own time and explore the topic at their own pace, in as little or as much depth as they wish. It also meant that we were able to deliver lab activities to large cohorts, despite pandemic conditions, including reduced staff on site.

We will continue to make remote labs available alongside in-person experiences, to enhance and extend the practical work. This means more focused in-lab work, which can be supported by remote follow up work.

Read more about how the team carried out real remote experiments

18 workstations setup as remote labs for the controls teaching

left) a computer controlled wind tunnel in the Fluids Engineering lab in the Diamond and right) inte

Service manufacturing and Pop-Up Project Spaces

Since capacity for student manufacturing was severely restricted, many of the design/build modules used a service manufacturing model, where students sent in designs which were reviewed by technical staff and feedback provided. Parts were then produced from the designs, with students doing the final assembly on the Pop-Up Project Space (PuPS) stations. This process has provided students with great experience for working in industry, where design and manufacturing are often entirely separate and communication is key. Here are some examples:

The second year Civil Engineering programme contains an activity in the Fluids Engineering lab where students work in groups of up to six to design, build and test flow control structures using our 10-metre lume teaching flume.

With the sudden onset of lockdown, a new strategy was needed as no students would be allowed to access the specialist equipment. Working with Dr James Shucksmith from the Civil Engineering department, Dr Krys Bangert, a senior teaching technician in MEE, innovated a service build and test approach. Students were able to create their designs at home and submit them to us to be 3D printed. Teaching assistants would then test their designs in the flume using the experiential protocol and report the results back to the student groups using the VLE.

Although this approach was used to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, there are a number of attributes about this method of practical delivery that are advantageous compared to the traditional approach. The supply of a service to a client more closely represents the relationship engineers would experience in industry.

This approach provides more flexibility for students to engage with practical activities when not physically present. Although the in-person experience in a laboratory is best, to get a tactile appreciation of the experimental work, there are scenarios where students are unable to attend for health reasons, personal commitments or travel restrictions. In these cases, this approach can offer students flexibility to engage with the taught course.

Students’ flow control structure designs being tested in the flume

Claire Johnson, University Teacher in Bioengineering, explains how this worked for third year Bioengineering group design projects:

For the third year Bioengineering group design projects, students would normally work together to build and test a bioengineering-related product, using the facilities in the Diamond on a weekly basis. This year the students have focussed more on the design of a thermal cycler to carry out the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique that is used for Covid testing, but have still had access to some of the equipment required for this project. The students were given a take-home kit containing an Arduino Uno, USB cable, thermistor, resistors, breadboard, jumper cables and LEDs, so they could practice building a circuit to control LEDs with a heat input and the Arduino.

Service manufacturing in the Diamond has been in place so that students can submit their designs from home and their 3D printed parts or laser cut items to be manufactured by MEE technicians. GTAs have supported the students by meeting with them online to provide technical advice.

Having a dedicated space for the Pop-Up Project Spaces (PUPS) in the Diamond has made a positive impact in terms of students having an opportunity to build and test some of the subsystems that they have designed. Students have been able to book the PUPS from home and find a time that fits in with their schedule.

The students feel like they have developed their communication skills and found new ways to keep connected with their peers. They have become more resilient and have adapted well to change. Students appreciate that when working in industry or research that project milestones can change and that as an employee they would have to be flexible.

Next year I would like to take a blended approach by having some of the progress meetings online and providing the take-home electrical kits so that students can work on these in their own time, but in conjunction with face-to-face training sessions and some aspects of service manufacturing. Having the PUPS bookable by students will help them to develop their project management skills and develop their practical skills.

Students doing the final assembly on the Pop-Up Project Space (PuPS) stations.

Covid-secure labs

Here are some examples of how colleagues ensured that laboratory teaching was run safely:

Bio Tissue

The team made films of all the practicals so students who weren’t able to attend could still experience the experiment, albeit remotely. Some labs were moved completely online as it was felt that students wouldn’t gain as much experience from conducting these experiments themselves e.g. MAT209, students came in to run the gel electrophoresis (part 1) themselves, but Western blotting (part 2) was moved entirely online as it mostly involves washing stages and a 30 minute incubation period. A video was created to show the Western blotting practical, and other videos made available that explain the theory.

I think that as staff we have all really enjoyed and appreciated having students back in the lab! Students have told us how they have really enjoyed the sessions and that they really appreciate labs being scheduled for them.

DR HARRIET DROUIN, ENGINEERING TECHNICIAN

The team introduced videos for students to watch if they missed the session, and also some for students to watch before attending, so that they were already familiar with the experimental protocol when they arrived at the lab. Health and safety videos were created on social distancing and so that new students could see the lab before attending a lab session.

One advantage of this approach is that students arrive already familiar with what they will be doing. The team hasn't used this approach for every practical previously, only for ones with more complicated techniques (e.g. aseptic technique). Now every experiment has a video to be used as a pre-lab activity.

Going forward, the team will continue to provide videos on more complicated techniques for students to watch before the sessions so that they arrive with a better idea of what they will be doing.


Structures Lab (Bridge building)

Bridge building lab

The first year Civil and Structural Engineering curriculum contains a module (CIV1200 Introduction to Civil and Structural Engineering Design) where students design, build and test wooden small-scale bridges models working in groups of up to 12.

In particular, the Bridge Building session would normally run for approximately 4 hours with all team members cooperating to manufacture components and assemble the final bridge. Time constraint represents a key aspect for stimulating students to work as a team, splitting tasks and sharing responsibilities.

Due to social distancing and the decreased occupancy of the Structures Lab, Dr Matteo Di Benedtti from MEE introduced some necessary changes to the format of the activity. He recognised the pedagogical importance of teamwork and of the hands-on experience of building engineered components, and he decided to retain this activity as face-to-face. Dr Di Benedetti designed the new Bridge Building session to simulate an assembly line, with one student from each group accessing one PuPS at a time. Each group had a maximum of 12 hours, with bookable slots of 1 hour. A handover between one team member and the next was used to stimulate teamwork and cooperation. Perspex sheets across the middle of the working station allowed the finishing student to communicate effectively with the new starter. The finishing student, after sanitising the working station, tools and bridge, left the space and the next student took over.

In order to support teamwork, Dr Di Benedetti encouraged students in the lab to use digital devices to remotely connect with other group members to discuss arising problems not to feel abandoned.

Some groups used to their advantage the fact that some students were working in different time zones to effectively extend the “working hours” of the group. This cooperation was only made possible by the effective use of digital technologies.

All groups engaged with the activity and completed their bridges ahead of time. Initial informal feedback suggests the activity was well received.

The assembly line model, optimized to allow two or more students on each workstation in order to more effectively promote teamwork while social-distancing, will be rolled out to other modules.