By Bernard Ang, Keysight
Imagine how engineers performed their work a hundred years ago. They had no computer-aided design (CAD) or computer-aided engineering (CAE) software to help them analyze and optimize their design work. They did pure engineering on paper. It is unthinkable an engineer would be successful today without CAD and CAE tools. Now imagine how engineering educators instructed their students a hundred years ago. Students would take notes and make math calculations on paper to solve their design exercises.
Well, perhaps it is not too different today. What is missing for engineering educators to instruct their students and modernize their engineering labs?
Engineering educators are looking for modern digital tools to complement their existing engineering curriculum and significantly enhance teaching and learning processes. Digital tools enhance but do not replace students’ foundational knowledge, according to a discussion paper published by Dr. Jonas Gallenkämper from Verein Deutscher Ingenieure. “Digitized teaching will occupy a growing share of educational processes and thereby enter into a symbiosis with existing educational formats,” he wrote. “Digitization of education will, in particular, take place in those areas in which it can significantly contribute to the improvement of teaching and learning processes and of knowledge transformations.”
Here are some examples of how modern digital learning software tools can help engineering educators.
Live laboratory demonstrations in lecture halls
Many engineering educators teach fundamental circuit theories, such as Kirchhoff’s current and voltage laws, through mathematical expressions. See Figure 1.
They also instruct students about electronic components such as diodes, transistors, and operational amplifiers based on formulas and equations that simulate their characteristics. See Figure 2.
It is often difficult to demonstrate both theoretical mathematical aspects and actual laboratory measurements in a lecture hall with more than a hundred engineering students. Many engineering educators say they want to teach both concepts side by side to enhance and speed up the understanding of engineering fundamentals.
This is where modern digital software comes into play. Digital tools enable engineering educators to remotely log in to their engineering labs, control test instruments, and make measurements on the device under test. See the example in Figure 3 of software measuring a diode. Educators can proof the mathematical expressions of Kirchhoff’s electrical law with actual circuit measurements or perform a diode characterization for hundreds of students in a large lecture hall.
Inter-university research collaborations
Many large universities have engineering labs spread across multiple buildings and campuses. Even though the labs may have the same communication networks using the same firewall, the efficiency and speed of teaching and research collaborations can be challenging. Take, for example, a researcher who wants to test a satellite transponder. The thermal-vacuum chamber is in Building A, the EMI / EMC test lab is in Building B, the RF and microwave lab is in Building C, and so on. The researcher needs to conduct daily collaborative work with all team members to view results while tests are ongoing. The solution is digital software with test automation, data aggregation, and graphing tools.
In typical engineering research work, quantitative data collection is essential. For example, an engineering researcher may characterize the performance of a satellite transponder’s low-noise amplifier (LNA). In high-frequency microwave applications, impedance matching of the input and output of the LNA is critical across the operating frequency range to ensure optimum performance and stability. Test automation becomes an essential tool to help researchers collect substantial amounts of test data across the frequency range, voltage range, power range, temperature range, and more.
Data aggregation and graphing tools
In research work, multiple sources supply data. For example, quantitative test data can come from various aspects of a satellite transponder, such as heat dissipation in a vacuum environment, operating noise performance, and throughput performance. Data aggregation and graphing work are always the most tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone for researchers. Digital software tools can help automate the aggregation of all data and provide cohesive statistical data analysis graphs.
Intra-university teaching collaborations
Many colleges and universities share the workload when teaching basic engineering courses. This practice provides economic advantages such as resource sharing and cross-leveraging of knowledge skill sets.
However, such intra-university teaching collaborations require infrastructure features, including secure communications, seamless connectivity with learning management systems (LMS), integrated collaboration tools, and resource sharing.
Secure encrypted access to lab resources, lab courses, worksheets, quizzes, and exams are an essential need. Furthermore, educators, lab managers, teaching assistants, and students need various levels of access to university resources.
Seamless connection with university learning management systems
Many universities worldwide have implemented LMS tools to provide a web-based integrated learning environment for educators to manage their students’ learning processes and outcomes. Hence, there is a great opportunity to incorporate engineering digital software tools to seamlessly connect to existing university LMS tools and enable intra-university teaching collaborations.
Integrated collaborative tools
Digital infrastructure that provides educators with remote access to their laboratories includes integrated collaborative tools. Voice, video, text, and other tools may be widely available. However, having them integrated securely into the university network system makes sense to ensure security and efficiency in data storage.
Sharing of learning resources
A key opportunity for intra-university teaching collaborations is the creation of a shared learning repository where students can take self-paced industry-relevant training courses that complement the regular university curriculum. Participating universities can develop these courses or leverage the information from technical experts to quickly build industry-relevant courseware.
Engineering educators and lab instructors need digital technology to help enhance students’ foundational knowledge. Digital tools can promote critical thinking, enabling students to mature and prepare for the industry. Educators can use digital tools to bring their engineering labs into lecture halls to demonstrate the theoretical mathematical aspects and the actual laboratory measurements. Digital tools can provide test lab automation and data aggregation work to improve the efficiency of university research activities. Educators can also use digital tools that securely and seamlessly interface with most university LMS tools.
Bernard Ang manages product and marketing for data acquisition systems, digital multimeter products, automotive solutions, and education software solutions at Keysight Technologies (previously Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies). With 30 years at Keysight, Ang has been instrumental in manufacturing test engineering, product engineering, product line management, product development management, product support management, and product marketing. He received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois.