Pictured is SEE lecturer Mahda Jahromi and student Danielle Arciaga discussing the controller design for the ball and beam virtual platform.

SFU online lab course provokes innovative teaching techniques for in-person learning

September 08, 2022

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, instructors worldwide have faced the challenge of translating their course materials for online learning. The unexpected circumstances are particularly difficult for courses that require a lab component as a part of their curriculum – SFU’s SEE 342 was no exception.

Offered for the first time by the School of Sustainable Energy Engineering (SEE) in 2021, SEE 342 is a core engineering design course that introduces students to the fundamentals of feedback control systems. Along with lectures, labs play a significant role in the course with students assigned to design and evaluate their own controllers.

SEE lecturer Mahda Jahromi initially developed the course with the intent to help his students learn to model electro-mechanical systems and gain practical experience designing feedback controllers. The curriculum incorporates theories of math and engineering along with concepts of design and creation.

As physical labs became inaccessible and online learning became normalized, there were limited opportunities for students to develop their engineering design skills – an aspect that the SEE 342 course had intended to provide.

“About 50% of the learning happens in the lab where students learn to implement and test their design projects,” says Jahromi.

“By taking away this aspect, students would be left with no practical experience and would not be industry ready. They would also lose valuable experiences that they would normally gain when testing and troubleshooting their projects,” adds Jahromi. “These unexpected situations allow for students to grow and expand their skills.”

As Jahromi looked for ways he could effectively teach in an online environment, he decided to implement a virtual lab that offered a similar interactive environment for students to experiment and test their projects. Quanser's Interactive Labs allowed students to do just this.

“In this digital environment, students get to test and validate their designs on a dynamically-accurate representation of the actual hardware, which in our case is the ball and beam system,” says Jahromi.

The ball and beam system features a track on which a ball is free to roll. Students are to design a controller for the servo-gearbox system to direct the tilt angle of the track and control the position of the ball.

Not only was Jahromi’s integration of the virtual platform beneficial for his students, it was also the first time the virtual ball and beam platform was used in Canada.

Pictured is two students, Danielle Arciaga and Gurvanni Dhani from Jahromi’s SEE 342 course, testing the virtual and physical ball and beam systems from Quanser.

“The virtual system behaves the same way as the physical hardware, and it can be measured and controlled using MATLAB-Simulink,” he says.

SEE has purchased the physical Quanser ball and beam units for hands-on experience as current students are now completing the lab course in person.

“Even though classes are now in person, we continue offering our students access to the virtual platform,” says Jahromi. “We are making this investment because the 24/7 aspect of the lab is important for student learning.”

“Students could use the virtual system to work on their designs before and after their in-person lab sessions, and it also allows them to work on their projects whenever and however long they want.”

Danielle Arciaga and Gurvanni Dhani, two of Jahromi’s students, found the platform to be important for their success in the class.

“The simulation provided an accurate representation of my design and reflected how the system worked,” says Arciaga. “It gave us the feeling that the course was very interactive despite it being online.”

Although Jahromi was able to successfully execute a virtual engineering course, he realized that the online learning environment in the long term can become dull and can prevent students from working together.

“It’s important for students to be in the presence of one another, enjoy working in a team environment and learn from each other,” he says.

Regardless, adapting to the pandemic has helped Jahromi discover new teaching methods to increase the accessibility for students and create an open learning environment. These innovative techniques have been useful as classrooms transition back to in-person learning.

“With the virtual labs, much needed practice time is preserved and students are empowered to explore and validate their learnings at their own pace at home or wherever they are,” added Jahromi.

Like many instructors, Jahromi is happy to be back interacting with his students and teaching them face-to-face. He plans to use similar virtual platforms to help his students in his other engineering courses learn from this new way of teaching.