Shrinking the lab bench down to size
A lab bench packed with expensive oscilloscopes and function generators serves a seasoned electrical engineer well, but all that equipment might be overkill for students learning the basics of electricity. Having only a limited number of lab benches means that students don’t get a lot of time to learn the ins and outs of circuitry at their own pace.
Seeing an opportunity to improve the lab experience for his introductory courses, Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Faculty Associate Mark Allie has moved his electronics lab courses ECE 270 and ECE 271 from traditional lab bench work to Mobile Studio, a portable lab kit that, paired with a laptop, can simulate all the equipment his students need for basic experiments with current, voltage and frequency. “The experiments have been modified so that students can do everything with just the Mobile Studio board, with minor exceptions,” says Allie. “We’re reinforcing concepts from lecture, so we can easily cover the material with a USB-based device.”
The idea originated with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Professor and ECE alumnus Ken Connor, who developed the hardware and software through a grant from the National Science Foundation as a means of simplifying hands-on learning of electrical principles.
Rensselaer first implemented the kits in electrical engineering courses in 2007; embracing their success, the electrical and computer engineering department at UW-Madison funded a pilot in 2011 to test the concept in two lab courses. Mobile Studio lab kits will be added to a third course in fall 2012.
It’s not precisely the same as working with the real thing, but it’s a good primer for what to expect from a professional lab bench setup. “The interface even looks like the real equipment when you see it on screen,“ says Allie. The portability of Mobile Studio lab kits means that courses are more flexible–they can be run anywhere that students can set up a laptop, including a lecture hall.
The kits have an enormous advantage for budget-minded students: cost. They can own a Mobile Studio lab kit for $99. “You could buy this equipment two years ago for $500 or so. Now, it costs less than a textbook,” says Allie.
Best of all, students can take the kits home if they like, giving them more time to master the basics or just simply experiment. “A lot of students use it on their own time, just because they’re interested,” says Allie.