Georgia Tech professor: You can teach engineering lab online

Aerospace engineer encourages development of online lab courses to reduce exposure risks

Jonathan Rogers is the Lockheed Martin Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering at Georgia Tech, and also the creator of the online course “The Mechatronics Revolution: Fundamentals and Core Concepts,” hosted on the online education platform edX.

Rogers led the effort at Georgia Tech to develop a fully online version of Tech’s on-campus mechatronics course. More than 10,000 students from 150 countries enrolled in the course since it launched in April, he says.

In a guest column, Rogers says the experience offers a blueprint on how to adapt engineering, physics, chemistry and biology labs to a virtual setting to minimize spread of the coronavirus. Georgia Tech is among the Georgia schools planning to bring students back to campus next month.

By Jonathan Rogers

The COVID-19 crisis has created unprecedented challenges for colleges and universities. Academic administrators across the country are trying to determine how to balance the educational mission of their schools with the desires of students, parents, faculty, and politicians. One of the key decisions that must be made, and perhaps the most important, is the modality of classroom instruction: in-person, fully online, or a hybrid model in between the two.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, upwards of 35% of U.S. colleges and universities are now planning either a fully online or some type of hybrid online/in-person experience, although this number is likely to grow if the pandemic continues to worsen.

The good news is that many disciplines can be taught online without significantly sacrificing the learning experience. For instance, history, law, and business (among others) can more easily adapt to online instruction because much of the pedagogy takes place through lecture, discussion, reading, and writing. Classes held through video-conferencing may not be ideal, but they do provide a means for the critical exchange of ideas between students and faculty.

However, many subjects such as engineering, science, and medicine require hands-on experience as part of the learning process. Imagine if a student graduated from an engineering program without ever building anything, or a doctor graduated from medical school without ever physically examining anyone. It is an undeniable fact that hands-on experience is indispensable in these disciplines, and it cannot be discarded even in the current pandemic environment.

As an engineering professor at Georgia Tech, I struggle with how to keep students safe during lab activities that are essential to their education. Many on-campus instructional labs are crowded places where students share lab equipment. One lab classroom may potentially handle hundreds of students per day, with each student sharing the same tools and machines. Lab instructors often interact with large numbers of these students throughout the day, leading to high risk of exposure to someone with COVID-19.

For instance, Georgia Tech’s recently released county level exposure map predicts that, in a group of 50 students in Fulton County (where Georgia Tech is located), there is currently an 80% chance that at least one COVID-positive student will be present. This leads to large exposure risks for our students and faculty in instructional lab settings.

To keep our students and faculty safe, we must be creative and develop new ways to teach lab classes remotely. Over the past two years, I led a small team at Georgia Tech to develop a fully online version of our on-campus mechatronics course. Mechatronics is a subject in engineering that involves the design and construction of computer-controlled machines – it is used in the design of everything from household appliances to robots and self-driving cars.

Our online course, called The Mechatronics Revolution: Fundamentals and Core Concepts (hosted on the online education platform edX), brings hands-on mechatronics education to anyone around the world who wants to learn. Since the course launched in mid-April, more than 10,000 students from 150 countries have enrolled.

Our online mechatronics course is, to the best of our knowledge, the first lab-based online engineering course that has been developed to date. Unlike typical massively open online courses (MOOCs) which are purely lecture-based, our class provides a hands-on learning experience remotely. Students purchase a lab kit that is sent to their homes, complete with an embedded computer, motors, sensors, and the pieces to build a small robot. The kit costs about the same as a typical textbook. Through a series of lab assignments, students gain hands-on experience and proficiency in mechatronics at a similar level to what they would achieve in an undergraduate university course. In each lab assignment, students build a component of the robot using knowledge gained through lecture videos.

We specifically design the labs to avoid use of expensive or dangerous equipment without significantly sacrificing the learning experience. To grade submissions from hundreds or thousands of students, we developed an online grading platform wherein students submit particular data generated by their robot, and our algorithms determine if it is functioning correctly so we can assign them a grade. This type of in-home lab experience enables students to master the learning objectives without risking exposure to COVID-19, all at a fraction of the cost of attending the class on campus.

The same type of remote lab experience can likely be replicated in other areas of engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology. In some cases, students can check out a bundle of supplies from the school, perform the lab at home, and return it for sanitation and reuse. In others, faculty can identify bundles of materials that students can order online to perform labs at home, thereby avoiding the need to sanitize and share equipment.

While this type of online lab course has great potential, it is important to acknowledge the possible hurdles. Sometimes remote lab experiments may not be feasible because they require equipment that is too expensive or dangerous to operate at home. Likewise, group collaborations (which are a necessary component of engineering education) may be harder to achieve remotely. And instructor-student interactions may suffer, particularly if a lab instructor needs to examine a student’s lab setup to provide assistance. However, the development of online lab courses is worth pursuing when possible because, even if only a fraction of lab courses can be moved online, it will measurably reduce exposure risks.

Over the coming academic year, and possibly beyond, we need to think about how we can train the next generation of engineers and scientists without exposing people to needless risk. Yes, it may take creativity, investment, and time. But in the age of COVID-19, we have a responsibility to maintain and even improve our students’ learning environments in socially distanced settings. Our future engineers and scientists are counting on us to put in the effort and get it right.