March 2, 2021Print | PDF
Though the majority of classes are currently facilitated in the remote environment, some Wilfrid Laurier University Faculty of Science students have the opportunity to practice hands-on skills safely through select modified in-person labs and virtual instruction models.
Lab Coordinator and Course Instructor Terry Sturtevant faced the challenge of remote labs head-on and delivered stimulating simulated experiences as well as at-home lab kits to students in the Department of Physics and Computer Science.
Sturtevant was the lab coordinator for the Digital Electronics course and both the lab coordinator and instructor for the Physical Computing course. When in person, the digital electronics labs familiarized students with the components of digital electronic circuits, which can involve creating circuits with switches, LEDs, integrated circuits and other components. By using free simulation tools in the modified remote lab, Sturtevant was able to have students wire up and simulate virtual circuits, which were very similar to what they would create in an in-person lab.
Sturtevant says one of the advantages of virtual labs is that the tools allow students to do things that would be “inadvisable” on campus. For example, in a simulated lab environment, students can connect devices incorrectly – on purpose.
“They can ‘blow up’ a virtual component and have a visual lesson that is much more effective than simply warning them not to do it,” says Sturtevant. “For obvious reasons, we can’t do that in person.”
With issues of physical safety mitigated through virtual labs, Sturtevant still had other obstacles to overcome when redesigning and delivering the senior-level physical computing course.
“Since this course is about interacting with the physical world, it would kind of defeat the purpose to only do a simulation,” says Sturtevant.
To give students a hands-on experience, he worked with a company in Ottawa to produce custom mail-order kits containing all of the required components. All of the labs and projects were completed with the kit contents and unlike past on-campus offerings, students kept the kit at the end of the course.
Sturtevant surveyed his students at the end of the term. Responses indicated that overall, students felt the remote lab environment exceeded their expectations, provided new opportunities to experiment and increased their comfort-level using online tools.
“This ‘natural experiment’ has no doubt produced at least a few valuable insights,” says Sturtevant. “Adapting labs to a remote format has been challenging, but there have been some worthwhile results.”
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