According to Tomaszewski, the lab sessions were completed without any major issues. Feedback from the TAs as well as the students were mainly positive too. According to Prof. Shan, “students had a very good experience with the QLabs so we will continue using it even after the pandemic. One good thing about QLabs is that it can be used anywhere and anytime. Also, it provides students a very good understanding of the hardware, greatly helping them operate the hardware later.”
In the post course survey, over 70% of the students agreed or strongly agreed that the combination of QLabs and remote hardware lab was an effective method of experiential learning. According to one student, “The experience was a very pleasant one. There were no issues with the lab work on the virtual labs. When the time came for the hardware labs, my experience with QLabs made the transition really smooth. I think using QLabs was a good decision, and it will be helpful for students taking this course in the future.” Another student responded, “The responses of the virtual equipment fascinated me, that they can vary so much, that the noises can be simulated so well. To be honest, I don’t know how they do it, but I would recommend continuing to use it in the future.”
As much as he emphasizes using actual hardware, Prof. Shan is a firm believer in digital twinning. According to Shan, digital twinning can drive innovation and performance, and help companies improve the customer experience by better understanding their needs to develop enhancements to existing products, operations, and services. The benefits of virtual twinning are not limited to teaching. They easily extend to research applications. Whether you are developing a pick and place controller for a robotic arm, or a flight controller for a drone, or even a lane keeping algorithm for an autonomous vehicle, having the ability to develop and validate models in a virtual environment is safe, reduces development time, and is less costly.
Keep in mind that digital twinning is not a new technique. NASA was the first to dabble with twinning technology as far back as the early days of space exploration. This technology (the innovated mirrored system) was used when disaster struck Apollo 13 to allow engineers and astronauts to determine how they could rescue the mission. Today, NASA uses digital twins to develop new recommendations, roadmaps, and next generation vehicles and aircrafts.
Figure 4: Student response to the effectiveness of a hybrid approach
involving QLabs and remote hardware
The current pandemic, with all its hardships, has forced most universities to reinvent their approach to engineering labs. So, what will engineering labs look like at the ESSE department moving into the future? For the Fall 2021 semester, Prof. Shan plans to implement a hybrid approach, blending the convenience of QLabs balanced with the tangible experience of using real hardware. Learning through experimentation, whether virtually or using real hardware, is one of the most effective ways of developing the cognitive skills required for critical thinking, such as problem solving and systems thinking. These abilities are key identifiers of the success of engineering graduates in industry. By providing students access to physical labs along with virtual self-paced labs, Prof. Shan hopes students will have the tools that allow them to exceed the course learning outcomes.