Labs@Home: Adapting to the challenges of COVID-19 meant figuring out how to get electrical engineering hardware into the hands of students
"As the fall semester approached, every possible iteration of in-person, virtual or hybrid lab experience was on the table. When it became clear that holding in-person labs would not be possible with so many of our key undergraduate teaching assistants being off-campus, we pivoted quickly to online remote laboratories using custom laboratory kits."
—Kip Coonley, ECE Undergraduate Lab Manager
RoundTable: Labs@Home kits
The kits that Duke ECE prepared and shipped to students included items like Arduino boards, breadboards, resistors, capacitors, transformers, a suite of sensors, and even screwdrivers. Test and measurement equipment included handheld multimeters with temperature probes and software-based oscilloscopes and function generators.
Labs were kept small (7-8 students each) in order to give a low TA-to-student ratio and to encourage student interaction, which resulted in great lab attendance. The low ratios will also allow the department to meet target classroom capacities when the labs resume on campus.
So, how did the whole idea go over? Were the kits a success? Duke ECE Undergraduate Lab Manager Kip Coonley held a roundtable with two TAs (Chloe White ECE '22 and Franklin Boampong ECE/CS '22) to find out.
Coonley: Preparing these kits was a logistical challenge within the department—we've never been involved in high-volume shipping before! What was it like getting your kits?
Boampong: Because I was close to campus, I selected the option of going to the lab to pick up my kit. When it was ready for pickup, I got an email, and took a bus over to campus. I found my name, found my kit, and noted that I would need to take good care of the equipment because it would have to be returned later. It was a very streamlined process, very convenient.
White: My kit was mailed to me. The staff emailed and asked for the address to which I wanted the kit shipped. Two days before the first lab, I found a giant FedEx box on my bed, and it was my lab kit! I was thrilled that it arrived before labs began, and that was the case with almost everyone in my lab section. It was so convenient—I didn't have to do anything but give my address.
Coonley: Full credit to the ECE staffers who made the process seem so simple! Chris Bingham led the charge on ordering, organizing, packaging and sending out all of the kits to students so that they could have them before labs started this semester. The logistics and operations involved in that effort took over 6 weeks. Then Dina Khalilova prepared all the shipping labels, both domestic and international, and Ellen Currin supported FedEx tracking and delivery. It was truly a team effort. So what were your initial reactions to the kits?
Boampong: My package contained everything I needed for the whole semester. In a normal semester, I might go into a lab and use an oscilloscope once a week. Now I have an oscilloscope every day, and I can use it to work on personal projects. Having a lab kit at home helps me explore more than I would on campus. If I have free time, I can play around. I really enjoy it.
"The lab kits are honestly just super cool."
Chloe White, ECE '22
White: I second all of that. The lab kits are honestly just super cool. It's cool to have all this equipment around and available. It's a great resource to have in your house for explaining concepts to other people. And I was very thrilled to find the miniature screwdriver set just as I needed it.
Coonley: That's great feedback. I'm personally really excited about what's going to come from this experiment in the long term. When you have in-person labs and partners, it's really easy to rely on one person to handle coding and the other to troubleshoot hardware. But now everyone has to code and everyone has to work with hardware. In the spring, when everything went online, our ECE students became really adept at coding. In the fall, when we had more time to prepare, we wanted to put something in students' hands so they could get that physical, haptic feedback. Last semester we got a cohort of great coders and this semester I think we'll get a cohort of great makers and tinkerers.
"Last semester we got a cohort of great coders and this semester I think we'll get a cohort of great makers and tinkerers."
Kip Coonley, ECE Undergraduate lab manager
Boampong: During my time in ECE 110 I was more interested in the software side of things. Now that I'm getting more experience with hardware, I'm excited about hardware, too.
Coonley: I think that a lot of what we're learning now, we'll incorporate into future iterations of our labs—so that students might, for example, complete pre-labs in hardware and come to labs more prepared.
Boampong: I think that would be fun.
Coonley: We shipped these lab kits to Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, India, Japan, South Korea, England and the U.S. Can you guess which was the most difficult to get a kit to?
Boampong: I'd guess China, because of trade laws, coronavirus...
Coonley: That's what I thought, also.
White: But if it was the obvious answer, you wouldn't ask! Was it Brazil? Canada?
Coonley: It was Canada! Customs stipulations between the U.S. and Canada are the most stringent. Getting electronics, in particular, out of the country . . . the parts in the kits tend to look like something that might be explosives, so it was very challenging. The poor students in Canada had to wait an extra week or longer to get their kits.