How Might Engineering Education Transition From In-Person To Hybrid and Online Modalities?

As of March 2020, engineering professors have geared up to teach new hybrid and virtual models in their classrooms. Now that in-person learning is in full swing, it’s clear that hybrid learning is here to stay. I connected with Richard Hill, a professor and associate dean at the College ofRick Hill, a white male with short dark hair. Engineering and Science at the University of Detroit Mercy to see first-hand how engineering education is adapting for the future.

Q: What is the future of hybrid and online engineering education?

A: Over the past two years, I have seen engineering educators like me at colleges and universities pioneering new hybrid learning models. These models have combined the best aspects of remote and face-to-face learning. Even though most schools have returned to face-to-face teaching as the norm, the new but promising hybrid learning model remains very popular and effective.

As we look to the future of engineering education, implementing an integrated approach that integrates virtual learning labs with in-person engineering courses is a proven best practice. At the University of Detroit Mercy, we have had great success with two lab learning models. The first is virtual, with all learning occurring virtually through simulation, modeling, and other software. The other model is hardware, where students use inexpensive to industrial-grade hardware.

Tools I use in my classes, including MATLAB and Simulink, are key to recreating the personal lab experience and giving engineering students access to the same equipment as engineers in the field. The students can gain experience, analyze data, develop algorithms and create models. You will develop skills in the design of systems using multi-domain models, simulation and deployment without the need for code.

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Q: How are colleges and universities incorporating virtual and remote labs into their on-site engineering curriculum?

A: Virtual labs allow an instructor to easily introduce “experiments” into non-lab 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 time setting up and debugging the lab hardware and saves the cost and space of the physics lab while providing a very fast and controlled environment for experiments. This active, inquiry-based approach to teaching engages students better, provides deeper understanding, and improves knowledge retention.

Mastering the tools used for virtual labs, such as simulation, is in and of itself an industry-requested skill. For example, at Detroit Mercy, we developed a hardware-in-the-loop bench containing simulation-based vehicle models to demonstrate to students one of the techniques that are increasingly being used in industry for systems development and validation.

Q: What are the biggest challenges engineering professors face in adapting to online and hybrid learning environments?

A: One challenge is rethinking how we teach to take advantage of these new tools. It’s just not like most of us have taught ourselves, so we don’t have any personal examples to work on. How do we use a discussion forum effectively? How do we ensure that students watch the recorded lectures? And if we integrate activities, how can we make time for it? Do we have to stop reporting on some topics?

To ensure student success with hybrid learning, it is important to have a test-and-learn mentality. Through personal experience and discussions with peers, teachers have been able to learn which elements of a course are appropriate for online or asynchronous presentation, making better use of face-to-face class time. Teaching during a pandemic allowed for an incredibly fast learning curve and gathering of best practices. It was exciting to see how the application of virtual learning continues with great benefit.

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Another challenge is to create new and engaging teaching materials that work well within this learning approach. Resources like MATLAB Central allow users to share successful materials they have created. Collaboration and customization are key to hybrid learning and seeing what works well for others has proven valuable.