Friday, August 16, 2013

What Does the Undergraduate Lab of the Future Look Like?

A generation ago, the first real exposure that engineering students would get to sophisticated engineering tools and processes occurred only after they entered university. Back then, complex, affordable engineering equipment was not widely available to young techies.

That’s not true anymore. Today, high school students have access to all kinds of advanced technology – everything from embedded systems and tablets, mobile devices, small scale robotics systems, even UAVs. They’re all part of the fabric of teenagers’ everyday lives.

What Students Expect… and What They Get

Once they enter a university engineering program, these high school students are expecting, at the very least, to continue doing hands-on work with high tech tools and systems that run the gamut from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and solar power to advanced space systems and robotics.

Unfortunately, for too many students, this is where the process of disillusionment begins. Their engineering courses in first and second year have them doing math, learning theory and engaging in rigorous, low level foundational engineering. This is absolutely necessary, but, typically, students don’t quite understand that. Their appetite has been whetted for tangible, hands-on projects involving robotics, unmanned vehicles and the like. Being restricted to textbooks and mathematical theories fails to excite them.

A New Kind of Engineering Lab
Today the question for engineering educators is how do we motivate and retain our students while still ensuring that they have the rigorous theoretical background they need? Our answer has been to create a new kind of engineering lab. This lab is based on modular, purpose-built educational hardware and software that recognizes the needs and skills of a new generation of engineering students who grew up entirely in the computer era. To better understand them, we considered where they fit within the entire history of engineering education. 

See what the Undergraduate Lab of the Future can look like in practice.

An Exciting Future Builds on the Past
In its infancy, engineering education was very closely related to industry and hands-on application of specific skills. Studying engineering amounted to doing an apprenticeship. This was the beginning of an extended mechanical era, when students studied how to make things with their hands, how to build roads, bridges, locomotives and other tangible industrial applications. In other words, what they learned in the engineering classroom was closely tied to the real world and the real world technologies of the time.

In the early to middle 20th century technology and our engineering projects became more complex. We entered a theoretical era that required heavy reliance on mathematics. With the dawn of the computer age, the pendulum swung again and engineering’s educational emphasis returned to the more practical skills that were in demand in industry. However, despite the increasing wealth of experience that was available to students at that time, dynamic modeling and controlsystem curriculum remained firmly entrenched in a math-centered, simulated context.

Presenting the Undergraduate Lab of the Future
As we see it, the Undergraduate Lab of the Future has already arrived. It is the expression, in the classroom and university lab, of this latest pendulum swing. It is a hands-on, applications-based lab that delivers a learning experience that is theoretically rigorous, yet practical, effective and highly motivating. It touches all the bases and creates engineers that will be well-suited to find the engineering solutions suited for the 21st century.

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