Lab kits provide critical hands-on experience in Cal State LA virtual engineering courses

Close up of the materials in the lab kit

By Myles Bridgewater-Jackman | Cal State LA News Service

When Cal State LA shifted to virtual learning in spring 2020, faculty in the College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology quickly realized a need to incorporate a hands-on experience similar to what students would have engaged in on campus.

Over the summer, a team of ECST faculty members developed standardized remote lab kits for seven laboratory sections for civil engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

Packaged in plastic totes and transparent zip bags, the kits contained materials to build analog circuits, measure viscosity and deflection, or study modes of heat transfer, depending on the lab section. The kits were distributed to students via drive-thru appointments on campus before the fall semester

Before the pandemic, a student enrolled in a Strengths of Materials laboratory section would learn to measure the deflection, or movement from a force or load, of an aluminum I beam. This was accomplished by using floor-mounted testing machines on campus. Without the ability to access these materials in person, Professor Sangbum Choi asked his students to use their remote lab kits to conduct measurements using common household items such as spaghetti or coins.

Choi says the remote lab kits are not a replacement for a true face-to-face lab experience, but they provide valuable opportunities for engineering students to practice hands-on work while learning virtually.

“It's so important for students to have these hands-on design skills where you can actually build stuff, take measurements of your actual design and understand how to improve it,” said Associate Dean Jane Dong.

To keep costs low, the faculty engineering team utilized Cal State LA’s ECST Makerspace to create and design materials for use in each lab kit, keeping the price between $20 and $40 per unit.

After the fall semester, lab kits were returned to campus, sanitized and restocked for spring semester lab sections. Some kits received small modifications to better meet the learning objectives of each section, or increase the number of experiments each kit is capable of facilitating.

In a post-virtual instruction world, engineering faculty see the lab kits as an opportunity to expand students’ learning experience. By utilizing the lab kits in conjunction with typical in-person lab instruction, professors plan to expand students’ opportunities to learn hands-on.

For the ECST students below, the remote lab kits enhanced their experiences during virtual instruction.

Marisela Velazquez, Civil Engineering, Strength of Materials Lab

"I think this was the only class I ever got a kit with. And I think this is the class that I felt like I learned the most with because I had to apply what I was learning, whereas other classes I couldn't apply what I was learning in their labs. So it made it more impactful for me, and I was able to remember the information better."

Spencer Misner, Mechanical Engineering, Thermal Systems Lab

"I think, especially in mechanical engineering, taking these labs and doing this hands-on experience really solidifies your knowledge in these topics. For me taking this thermal systems lab helped me to really solidify the knowledge that I had on the topic of heat transfer, beyond just having taken the lecture."

Sylvia Sonora, Civil Engineering, Strength of Materials Lab

"It was something I didn't expect. I was expecting something like other materials from class. And when I saw what materials we were going to use here at home—like the caliper and tubes—that kind of gave me an idea of what we were going to be looking into in class. So it was actually a great experience using that, because I mean not everyone has access to those [materials] at home."

Kulvir Beinig, Mechanical Engineering, Thermal Systems Lab

"Being able to see the effects of the lab kits onto the wood and aluminum pieces, it was very easy to understand the concepts, even if it was at a smaller magnitude. I feel like if we were in a lab, we would be able to use something like this. It was a good way of conducting the lab."

Photo: ECST faculty members developed standardized remote lab kits for seven laboratory sections to provide hands-on experiences for engineering students during the pandemic. (Credit: Robert Huskey/Cal State LA)

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