The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech an almost $500,000 four-year grant to expand its Lab-in-a-Box program for electrical and computer engineering classes to reach online students, while helping Blacksburg students with after-hours questions.

Professor Bob Hendricks of the materials science and engineering department and Assistant Professor Kathleen Meehan in the electrical and computer engineering department, along with Peter Doolittle, associate professor in the Department of Learning Sciences and Technology within the Virginia Tech School of Education and director of the Center for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (CEUT), will use the NSF Course Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement Phase II award to spearhead the project, Lab-in-a-Box: Development of Materials to Support Independent Experimentation on Concepts in Circuits and Electronics.

Meehan will serve as principal investigator, while Hendricks and Doolittle will serve as co-principal investigators. Richard Clark, head of the engineering program at Virginia Western Community College, also will participate on the grant.

The project builds on previously NSF-funded work that helped Hendricks and others within Virginia Tech develop Lab-in-a-Box, an inexpensive laboratory kit that allows students enrolled in a lecture-based beginning electrical engineering class to design, build, and test various DC and AC circuits at home.

The kit includes a digital multimeter, a powered circuit trainer with an attached breadboard, reams of wire, connectors, receivers, and various tools, all from the New Jersey-based Electronix Express, and a software oscilloscope program developed by Professor Christian Zeitnitz of the University of Wuppertal in Germany.

Hendricks said he hit on the idea and the Lab-in-a-Box name more than five years ago at an industry textbook conference where he met a University of Washington professor who had hatched an earlier concept. Still, Hendricks took an idea equivalent to a Model-T Ford and, during the course of five years and with the help of more than a dozen Virginia Tech faculty and graduate students, made it into an Aston Martin. “I looked at the University of Washington concept and said, ‘That’s neat. But we can do it better,’” Hendricks said.

Among the myriad of additions and changes Hendricks made to the kit is the addition of the carrying case itself – a high-end tackle box he spotted at a Wal-Mart sporting goods department. All told, the kit plus tackle box totals roughly $200. Accompanying the Lab-in-a-Box and costing $30 extra is a 340-page textbook now in its third edition with 38 experiments.

Lab-in-a-Box has been used in several electrical and computer engineering classes since 2004, said Meehan. The kits “instill self-confidence and improve self-reliance in the students when, for the first time in their engineering careers, they construct a circuit with physical components rather than symbolic parts and determine voltage drops and currents in the circuit by direct measurement rather than by calculations,” according to the grant request.

Many electrical engineering students once would build their own computers or stereo systems from kits at home, but as technologies progressed, such hobbies fell by the wayside. Lab-in-a-Box brings back the hands-on experimenting with circuit boards to students, Meehan said. “There’s nothing like that hands-on experience of putting it together. It’s a lot better than just plugging numbers into an equation and drawing the circuit out.”

Funding from the four-year grant project will be used to expand the use of the boxes to electrical engineering online classes, serving not only Virginia Tech students, but those outside Blacksburg. Many students at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke, Va., Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Va., and J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, Va., already use the box in various classes, but the grant money will expand this option to those who don’t have a laboratory class as an option.

Many Virginia Tech College of Engineering students begin their higher education at such regional schools before transferring to Blacksburg, Meehan said. The online classes and Lab-in-a-Box lessons will help these students graduate on time after they transfer to Blacksburg in the equivalent of their junior year. Students will sign up for the class via the Internet, follow online video tutorials and then show their work to graduate school instructors using computer video cameras and other online technologies. Doolittle will help oversee the launch of the online courses, Meehan said.

Online tutorials for all students will include podcasts, flash tutorials, and other multimedia presentations of not only lessons, but of most frequently asked questions (FAQs) derived from textbook experiments, Hendricks said. The Internet-ready lessons and FAQ answers will solve several problems derived from the take-home kits, Hendricks added.

First, students with questions or problems derived from their at-home experiments can utilize the online tutorials for assistance rather than tracking down Hendricks or various lab assistants. Many students come to him in a single day with the same question, Hendricks said. Secondly, it will cut down on the number of those graduate students who are needed as lab assistants in the long run. With more state budget cuts certain in coming months, this will be a plus, he said. “You can do more with less,” he added.

Later in the four-year initiative, Doolittle, Hendricks, and Meehan will study the validity of the Lab-in-a-Box program, measuring its impact on student grades and knowledge, and also its technical practicality. For now, the testing will include two control groups – one of electrical and computer engineering majors who will use the boxes and another of non-majors, who will not use the kits. Hendricks said he hopes to use any information gleamed from the tests to enhance the Lab-in-a-Box project.

Also on the distant horizon: opening the Lab-in-a-Box program to other universities within Virginia and then beyond. The first adoption outside of Virginia will be a university in Kuwait, where the professor in charge of the course is a Virginia Tech doctoral student who shortly will complete his degree.

Hendricks focuses his research on semiconductor processing and characterization, structure-property relations in materials, physical metallurgy, electronic materials, and solid state physics. He earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Cornell University in 1959 and 1964, respectively, and an M.B.A. from the University of Tennessee in 1985.

Meehan’s research interests include optoelectronic device, optical sensor design and fabrication, silicide-semiconductor devices and sensors, process development, optical spectroscopy of biological, and biochemical substances. She earned her bachelor’s of science from Manhattan College in 1980, and her master’s and doctoral degrees from University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign in 1982 and 1985, respectively.

IMAGE INFORMATION: The Lab-in-a-Box is a relatively inexpensive laboratory kit that allows students enrolled in a lecture-based beginning electrical engineering class to design, build and test various DC and AC circuits at home.

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