In the Fall of 2021, Rachael L’Orsa, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Electrical Engineering at the University of Calgary was presented with a new challenge. She was tasked to teach a fourth-year mechanical engineering Controls Systems course that introduces students to a wide range of topics such as physical systems modelling, stability, and PID control. The complete list of topics for the ENME 585 course is presented in Figure 1.
L’Orsa was already a seasoned Quanser user after having worked with both hardware and software for over ten years, primarily for her research. Thus, adopting Quanser solutions for ENME 585 was a natural and comfortable move. According to L’Orsa, “while I’ve used equipment ranging from $15 Arduinos to state-of-the-art research equipment, I can confidently say that the Quanser ecosystem, from the QUARC Real-Time Software to hardware, and the digital twins they provide are, by far, the most cohesive and intuitive platforms for learning and applying controls, mechatronics, and robotics
principles – everything just works”. Additionally, “what distinguishes Quanser from other is the pre-made curricula that ships with the products and the phenomenal customer support.”
While in-person students had the advantage of using the physical Quanser products, L’Orsa wanted to provide the remote ENME 585 students with an equally meaningful and realistic lab experience. The University of Calgary adopted Quanser Interactive Labs (QLabs), which is a scalable platform that delivers credible, academically appropriate, and high-fidelity lab experiences through interactions with virtual hardware.
With hands-on labs being a core component of every engineering course, were you able to offer a meaningful lab experience to students using QLabs?
While most students conducted the lab on the physical experiments, virtual experiments were still used for her remote students or students who did not manage to finish their in-person lab within the designated lab session. L’Orsa has the following to say about QLabs: “I do think QLabs was a value-add for us, especially since we had a hybrid teaching model with both remote and in-person students. I’m really not sure what I would have done for
labs if it wasn’t for QLabs.” However, although QLabs offered students a meaningful laboratory experience, it did require a little bit more effort and coordination because they did not have the resources, like an available teaching assistant or lab instructor, to offer both in-person and guided remote labs delivered synchronously. As a result, remote students were slightly disadvantaged because they could not get immediate answers if they had any questions about the lab or the software platform, especially since many of the students were still unfamiliar with MATLAB® and Simulink®.
Did off-campus students have remote access to the physical labs?
Remote labs are valuable, but they were not set up for this class because it would be challenging to configure access for students in different time zones. In addition, some of the experiments need some personal assistance. In order to give remote students some experience with the real performance characteristics of the actual hardware, measured data from the physical experiments (e.g., for the Quanser Coupled Tanks) were provided. This was done to highlight that while QLabs offer high-fidelity models of the Quanser systems, the actual hardware will behave slightly differently due to real-world effects such as additional nonlinear dynamics and sensor noise.
Do you plan to continue offering both in-person and remote labs to students when the pandemic is over?
L’Orsa says it would be preferable if the same labs do not have to be offered both in-person and remote. Ideally, L’Orsa would like to adopt a hybrid model where “I’m using digital twins in assignments and showing it to students in class, so they get a chance to familiarize themselves with the equipment, software, and control design; before they even get into the lab.” This would make the lab time more efficient and help students understand the concepts better.