An integral part of a mechanical engineering and other engineering programs are laboratory experiences. While the benefits of hands-on laboratories are in providing environments for students to apply theoretical knowledge, the changing landscape of engineering education today is spurring consideration of alternate means of offering laboratory-based education. One approach is that of developing remote or online laboratory experiences, which is particularly attractive for our mechanical engineering program at Iowa State University in the following ways: 1) They can help address capacity issues caused by increasing enrollments; 2) They can facilitate online learning opportunities for off-campus students, including the increasing number of students pursuing internship and co-op opportunities, thus enabling offering to new students and potentially minimizing time to degree for in-program students. Offering lab activities online demands modification of current laboratory systems or the creation of new systems. In addition any laboratory experience that is thus delivered must be assessed for its impact on student learning in comparison with the traditional experience. Consequently we have endeavored to pilot selected laboratory experiences in our undergraduate engineering: two laboratory exercises in the Fluids course covering pumps and linear momentum concepts and one exercise in the Heat Transfer course covering steady state conduction and extended surfaces. In each case, a computer-based remote access was established to view and control the experimental apparatuses, thus providing students with a mechanism to conduct the experiments in a remote (online) environment. For each laboratory, part of the class conducted the lab in the traditional in-class format while the remainder conducted the exercises in the ‘remote’ mode. Assessment of student learning included student self-assessment of understanding of concepts (through surveys), feedback on the actual experience itself and direct assessment of their understanding through lab report scores as measured by teaching assistants. The results for the fluids and heat transfer laboratories showed that there was no significant difference in the learning of the students. Student perception of the remote lab experiences depended on the smooth running of the experiments. The pilot study suggests that some laboratory experiences can be successfully ported to a remote or online mode without sacrificing the student learning experience.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/sriram_sundararajan/1/