'Lab-on-a-CD' devised by Tidewater faculty

05/04/04

'Virtual' technology could change how experiments are done

NORFOLK, Va. – (May 5, 2004) –Tidewater Community College has found a groundbreaking way to "virtualize" real-life experiments through cutting-edge software programs. Determined to mine the latest technology for better - and affordable - learning methods, professors in TCC's electronic engineering technology (EET) program have succeeded in bringing "virtual instruments" to life for their students.

The result: a virtually functioning "lab on a CD." Now students can "play" with electronics equipment on the computer, setting up projects in class to take home. Homework, experiments and team projects have morphed to a portable lab that operates and measures results like real life - at no cost, with no need for expensive equipment.

TCC's new electronics engineering technology labs mark the metamorphosis to the future. Housed at the Advanced Technology Center at TCC's Virginia Beach Campus, the lab stations use the Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite, known as ELVIS - a group of virtual instruments donated by National Instruments.

These include digital multimeters, oscilloscopes, function generators, digital readers and bode analyzers. The lab also has touch-sensitive white boards that interact with each lab-station computer screen. Lectures have become truly interactive - students can see computer-generated applications and the professors' lecture notes right on the screen in front of them. At the end of class they leave with a CD of the entire class experience.

To make the transition to a virtual lab, Al Koon, program director and EET professor, wrote new software using the LabVIEW operating system to integrate the technology into the classroom. This means students can change frequencies and other factors and see what happens. Today, 50 of 75 labs in the EET program use this virtual technology. The new labs were funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"The more you play with something, the more you learn it - this is especially true for today's students who grew up playing on computers," explains Koon. "The new software allows students to learn difficult EET principles through trial and error, and at the end of the program they can see if their thinking is correct. Students can now design electronics, troubleshoot, and its fun." Since Koon designed the software application, it's free to his students.

In a course developed by associate professor Wayne Blythe, students are even creating a virtual weather station that measures the temperature, wind speed, rainfall, the UV index, pressure and other weather-related elements. This summer, Koon and Blythe hope to turn the virtual weather station into a real working model. The data will be transmitted through wires into the lab, processed by LabVIEW software and read by a connected computer. The information can then be sent through TCC's closed-circuit television monitors throughout the college, placed online on the TCC website or even used by a local weather station.

Only two schools in the world teach the LabVIEW developer curriculum, and TCC is one of them. In fact, with only 211 LabVIEW developers in the nation's workforce, TCC's curriculum focuses on unmet industry needs.

"You don't often think of a community college as a research facility, but at TCC we're on the cutting edge of this technology, which is key for industry workforce growth," Koon adds. "Eventually we hope to make this prototype available to local high schools and other institutions in the Virginia Community College System and beyond."

Source: Eurekalert & others

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