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Since March 2020, engineering professors have adapted to teaching new hybrid and virtual models in their classrooms. Now with in-person learning in full swing, it’s clear hybrid learning is here to stay. I connected with Richard Hill, a professor and assistant dean in the College of Engineering and Science at the University of Detroit Mercy, to hear firsthand how engineering education is adapting for the future.
Q: What does the future of hybrid and online engineering education look like?
A: Over the last two years, I’ve seen engineering educators like myself at colleges and universities pioneer teaching with new hybrid learning models. These models have combined the best aspects of remote and in-person learning. Even as most schools have returned to in-person learning as the norm, the new but promising hybrid learning model remains very popular and effective.
As we look to the future of engineering education, there is proven value in implementing an integrated approach incorporating virtual learning labs into in-person engineering courses. At the University of Detroit Mercy, we’ve seen strong success with two learning models for labs. The first is virtual, where all learning is done virtually through simulation, modeling and other software. The other model is hardware, where students use low-cost to industrial-quality hardware.
Tools I use in my classroom, including MATLAB and Simulink, are key to recreating the in-person lab experience and giving engineering students access to the same equipment as engineers in the field. Students can gain experience analyzing data, developing algorithms and creating models. They’re developing skills in the design of systems with multidomain models, simulation and deployment without the need for code.
Q: How are colleges and universities incorporating virtual and remote labs into their in-person engineering curriculum?
A: Virtual labs allow an instructor to easily introduce “experiments” into nonlab classes, either in the middle of a lecture or in homework. I do this with live scripts and simulation models. It saves me and the students the time of having to set up and debug the lab hardware and saves the cost and space of the physical laboratory while providing a very quick and controlled environment for doing experiments. This active, inquiry-based approach to instruction better engages students, provides for deeper understanding and improves knowledge retention.
The ability to use the tools employed for virtual laboratories, such as simulation, is in and of itself a skill that is in demand by industry. For example, we have developed at Detroit Mercy a hardware-in-the-loop bench that incorporates simulation-based vehicle models to demonstrate to students one of the techniques increasingly employed in industry for system development and validation.
Q: What are the top challenges engineering professors are facing while adapting to online and hybrid learning environment?
A: One challenge is just rethinking how we teach to take advantage of these emerging tools. It’s just not how most of us were taught ourselves, so we don’t have personal examples to work from. How do we use a discussion board effectively? How do we make sure students watch the recorded lectures? And if we are integrating activities, how to make time for that? Do we need to give up coverage of some topics?
To ensure student success with hybrid learning, it’s important to have a test-and-learn mentality. Through personal experience and discussions with colleagues, faculty have been able to learn which elements of a course are suited to an online or asynchronous presentation, allowing for better use of in-person class time. Teaching through a pandemic allowed for an incredibly fast learning curve and gathering of best practices. It’s been exciting to see the application of virtual learning continue with great benefit.
Another challenge is creating new and engaging teaching materials that work well within this learning approach. Resources like MATLAB Central allow users to share successful materials they’ve created. Collaboration and adaptation are key in hybrid learning and seeing what works well for others has proven valuable.