I wanted to briefly share my experience in transitioning from a hands-on lab course to a virtual lab in MATLAB. Here at UMass Amherst, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering, we have a required undergraduate lab sequence, one during junior year and another during senior year. I teach the 2nd course, MIE 402, with a focus on measurements, data acquisition, system dynamics, and control.
The main idea behind our labs, in addition to the all too important hands-on experience, is to provide the students with a platform where they can validate and understand limitations of theoretical models from experimental data.
While the hands-on aspect was lost, we were able to create virtual experiments that consisted on Simulink models saved as protected files. In our protected models, students were able to assign input variables, decide on simulation parameters (e.g., integration parameters), and have certain outputs saved to the workspace. The key for making this a challenging lab was twofold: (1) Students were not told about the level of modelling detail inside the protected file (e.g., were dry friction or electrical inductance included?) and (2) each student was assigned a different set of model parameters based on their student ID (via a predefined table inside the protected file). The 2nd point was especially impactful as students felt as if they are working on their own experiment.
We developed virtual labs for a tuned mass damper and a DC motor experiments. Feedback from the students showed that they missed the hands-on experience but really liked being able to interact, as many times as needed, with the virtual lab at their time frame of choice, and have the ability to interact with us (grad assistant and myself) then re-run the experiment to test new ideas.
Some future developments that could significantly enhance the educational impact of such virtual labs would be the addition of real-time animation and increased level of modelling (e.g., data acquisition effects, electromagnetics, etc.’). At UMass we presently do not have access to the entire suite of Matlab tools, something that prevented us from including these ideas in our virtual labs.
This would have not been possible without Andy Bartlett (tremendous Simulink help) and Div Tiwari (quickly getting us access to required tools).