In a semester filled with virtual classes and meetings, online programming, and limited social interaction, many classrooms and laboratories around campus are vacant and still. With a mix of virtual and hybrid format course offerings in place, the number of students physically present in academic buildings has dropped dramatically. 

Though most classes this semester are being held virtually, this hasn’t stopped the Kevin T. Crofton Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering from providing students with hands-on learning opportunities. Building upon the successes of executing online lab experiences in the wake of the global COVID-19 pandemic, faculty and instructors have adapted a number of hands-on undergraduate laboratory courses to safely offer either face-to-face interaction in a hybrid format or fully remote experimentation for fall 2020. 

Electronics for Aerospace and Ocean Engineers

A record number of undergraduates are enrolled in the department this semester, resulting in one of the largest sophomore classes the department has ever seen. For the required Electronics for Aerospace and Ocean Engineers lab course (AOE 2054), Associate Professor Michael Philen creatively adapted his lab schedule and workspace to accommodate the course. The primary goal was to reduce the number of students working in the lab at one time, while also practicing social distancing.

“The aerospace and ocean engineering curriculum puts great emphasis on experiential, hands-on learning,” said Philen. “The opportunity for safe face-to-face instruction is so critical for the success of the program and the education of our students.”  

Located in the basement of Randolph Hall, the AOE Electronics Educational Center and Laboratory is where students enrolled in AOE 2054 participate in hands-on electronics-related activities. Philen and senior electronics technician John Burleson organized the 320 students into teams of three on a rotating schedule for face-to-face instruction. Throughout the week, 13 separate lab sessions are held, with only one team member attending in person. Each week, a different team member attends in person.

Students attending lab sessions in person interact with their teammates via Zoom. The experimenter has three cameras with views of the workbench, the instrumentation and the circuit board.
Students attending lab sessions in person interact with their teammates via Zoom and communicate with their mobile phones. The experimenter has three cameras with views of the workbench, the instrumentation, and the circuit board. Photo by Jama Green.

“Organizing the teams was a bit of a challenge, as we needed to ensure that there were at least two students per team that were willing to attend the labs in person,” said Philen. “We needed to be cognisant of the students not able or comfortable attending in person. We’d like to thank Michael Fowler, research scientist at the Hume Center for National Security and Technology, for writing a computer program to assist with the organization of the teams.”

Nine workbenches have been carefully spaced 6 feet apart around the lab, each outfitted with tall plexiglass dividers and a supply of hand sanitizer and cleansing materials to disinfect the workspace in between lab sessions. Philen and Burleson have arranged three web cameras on each workbench. One wide-angle camera gives an overview of the entire bench, one camera is focused on the instrumentation in use, and a document webcam is focused on the circuit board.

The teams complete the week’s assignment together through Zoom. The student attending in person is designated as the Experimenter, while one virtual member serves as the Quiz taker, and the other virtual member is the Calculator. Zoom allows two cameras to be simultaneously streamed, giving the virtual team members the flexibility to switch between cameras.

“As part of my studies this semester, I’ve periodically attended the in-person labs offered each week,” said sophomore Calvin Moore. “The in-person experience has been drastically limited this semester due to the COVID-19 response by the university, and although I’ve only been able to attend a few times this semester, both myself and my lab-mates have learned a lot from these lab sessions. Hands-on learning and practical application are essential for a complete education, especially in a subject as nonintuitive as electrical engineering. My peers and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to get into Randolph this semester.”

Experimental Methods

Last year in March, when Virginia Tech moved to fully remote learning after an extended spring break, faculty and instructors needed to quickly change mode of delivery for the Experimental Methods (AOE 3054) course. Led by Professor William Devenport and research Associate Professor Aurelien Borgoltz, the team had success with conducting experiments in the Stability Wind Tunnel with 170 students in 28 lab sections remotely over Zoom.

Using what they learned in the spring, Borgoltz adapted two different experiments to be run fully remotely for fall 2020 with the help of research Assistant Professor Nanyaporn Intaratep and research associate Máté Szőke. The experiments, housed in the Newport News Shipbuilding Aerospace and Ocean Engineering Teaching and Research Lab, utilize the 0.7-meter open jet wind tunnel and the 6-inch water tunnel twice a week, every other week. Using remote-controlled, pan-tilt-zoom cameras in Zoom, students have the option to control the view and zoom in on any aspect of the experiments.

One aspect that could not be fully implemented during the spring 2020 experiment in the Stability Wind Tunnel was providing a high level of control to the students. For fall 2020, the students have the ability through Zoom to control both the state-of-the-art instrumentation (including a pressure scanner and traversing system for the open jet experiment, and a particle shadow velocimetry system for the water tunnel) and the facilities (having the ability to set the tunnel speed themselves) from the comfort of their homes or a study space on campus. 

The students can control every piece of the experiment except for the model itself, which requires their instructor’s assistance. Should the need arise, a system was also implemented so students could grab the attention of the instructor who was physically present in the lab, using a controllable LED display. The instructor, once alerted, could join the students’ Zoom meeting and address their questions.

Running these two experiments remotely for AOE 3054 has helped the faculty and instructors reduce the number of students in Goodwin 140 at any given time, and allows students who are residing off-campus the opportunity to fully participate in the experiments. It has also provided the department with invaluable feedback on how to design remote experiments and improve student learning experience in the future.  

Written by Jama Green

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