Evolution of Engineering Studies: Remote Labs

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The pandemic has made engineering students miss the touch of labs, but presented an opportunity for the world to make education fruitful by ‘studying from home’. The only challenge now is to bring engineering labs into student’s hands. Is it practically possible and how far will this solution be beneficial?

The “New Normal” is the most trending term in the aftermath of the pandemic. It has forced people to continue their daily tasks without having to step out of their home. Technology continues to safeguard humans from getting infected with the virus, by bringing everything to your doorstep; even to the extent of education.

Online classes have provided a new outlook that both students and professors now rethink of going back to the physical classroom. They want to instead devote more time to studies and practicals. Unsure about Arts or Commerce but in the field of Engineering, students rely a lot on labs and practicals, which unfortunately during the pandemic, took a worse hit.

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The advantage is that students from remote areas, who cannot economically afford to attend college physically, might now be able to pursue engineering, but the major question is the quality of such theoretical engineers. Though there are a handful of colleges that provide remote access to labs, the majority cannot do so.

The Situation
Due to the pandemic, graduates from engineering colleges have not had practical lab experience specially for the last two years. India has more than 3,500 engineering colleges and with an increasing likeness towards studying from home; the absence of T&M devices pose a major concern.

The Challenges
Will recruiters find such graduates employable, or will they put a halt on the usual hiring season till the ‘old normal’ comes back? What is the position of one million engineering graduates from India every year?

The Solution (also a challenge)
Need of devices that help students practice theory, validate design and work on projects from their homes without having to spend a bomb! In a nutshell – Engineering the future of labs!

Academia’s view

“We have seen challenges and opportunities in the study of engineering for the past two years. Even before the pandemic we faced a problem where most engineering institutions, in and outside India, were focused on students mugging up information just to pass exams. With less focus on real engineering, many laboratories are still fixed for students who want to observe engineering rather than to try their own hands on it,” shares Krishna Vedula, Founder & Executive Director, Indo Universal Collaboration For Engineering Education.

He adds, “The pandemic worsened the situation, as students cannot even step inside laboratories now. The technologies, on the other hand, have evolved so much in various ways that a beautiful hybrid model now allows us to do engineering education in a better way. This “better way” can be accomplished only when the students are able to have hands-on experiences on projects they do.”

From Dr Vedula’s point of view, the access to labs and working on projects allows students to not only develop practical engineering skills, but also better communication skills, making them ready to work in teams. It is important for the industry to take advantage of technologies and develop educational tools that can help students gain skills needed in the real world.

Technology has enabled board meetings for offices to happen over platforms like Zoom, and also helped many design engineers validate what they are working on by using Remote Labs. However, not all engineering education institutes are capable of matching the spending pattern of big corporate houses, providing students access to Remote Labs. Even if technology has not been able to provide an alternative access to engineering labs so far, various online education startups have been able to raise billions of dollars in funding, ones that are not yet recognised by any university or government!

Microsoft, has termed hybrid work model as the next great disruption. “Over the past year, no area has undergone more rapid transformation than the way we work. Employee expectations are changing, and we will need to define productivity more broadly — inclusive of collaboration, learning, and wellbeing to drive career advancement for every worker, including frontline and knowledge workers, as well as for new graduates and those who are in the workforce today,” mentioned Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft in a blog post.

“The lack of access to physical equipment in a lab affects especially electronics engineering students. Adding to it, working in a peer group is of utmost importance,” says Skanda Prasad, Student, Electronics & Communications Engineering.But how far will the hybrid model of educating engineering students continue? Are tools available to make ‘study from home’ as productive as ‘work from home’?

“The next hit taken was the absence of enthusiasm for learning electronics by doing things. Getting into practical projects has been reducing gradually. Electronics engineering students are trying to find interests in the IT sector out of compulsion. We definitely are in dire need of a solution to this problem” he adds.

Ready for the future

The government of India has recently launched production linked schemes (PLI) for promoting electronics manufacturing locally in India. These schemes, worth over thousands of crores of Rupees, are targeted to make India the hub of the same. It is now that to make India the global hub of electronics manufacturing, the country will require fresh talent that supersedes the level of skills compared to other countries tagged as the “electronic factories of the world”.

With this rising demand, the next question here is whether companies will be eager enough to hire students who have done their engineering online? The gravity of the question increases when we keep in mind that approximately only 3 per cent of the engineering graduates manage to get quality jobs. If a report by Scaler is to be believed, then almost over 80 percent of the engineering graduates end up in non technical roles.

“The recruiters are well aware and have also been considerate about students lacking practical knowledge with the effects of lockdown. The most important thing that the recruiters are now looking at is to hire graduates who are ready to go that extra mile to get the practical exposure,” shares Skanda who has been giving interviews with various companies during the last two months.

He feels it is a very serious question that falls in the top 10 per cent of all categories. “Students do get employed by virtue of their intellect. The answer for the rest 90 percent of categories, lies in how much exposure students have towards hardware engineering. How would they learn debugging, instrumentation, measuring signals and more? Ability to self teach or attend labs inspite of the online scenario, will definitely be evident at the time of the interview.”

Skanda adds, “Our engineers themselves are going through a lot of changes due to covid, and people are learning to contribute from home. My heart goes out to students who have passed out of colleges without seeing labs for the past two years. Yet if a student is able to demonstrate he has worked with Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or another robotics kit, then I think he has a fair chance of getting hired.”

The key as per what Skanda, Iyer and Dr Vedula say, might lie in having access to hardware testing and validation devices at home. However buying these devices would mean investing in Oscilloscope, Waveform Generator, Logic Analyzer, Response Analyzer, PID Controller, Data Logger and more. It might not be in the financial reach of all colleges or students to invest and buy these!

The evolution of engineering labs

The answer to all of the above problems can be, if the test & measurement devices created to help engineers working from home accomplish their task. These may require a little bit of modification to suit a student’s needs. For example devices like Moku Go promise the power of eight different test & measurement devices in a small box. Teams that have developed such devices claim these help engineering students to integrate hands-on experience into projects they are working on. They claim that such devices can give access to essential(all-in-one) devices to students and faculty alike irrespective of where they are working or studying from!

“Being portable and giving students the freedom to work and study from wherever they want and most importantly more instruments being packed into one device is a great combination. I have not tried any such device myself but I think these will do wonders in the hybrid model,” says Dr Vedula.

Bhooshan Iyer, Head, Embedded Business India, Tessolve Semiconductor says, “These devices are like a swiss army knife that can cater to multiple departments.I got to work with a high-end oscilloscope twice or thrice when I was in my engineering. A device where 8 to 10 instruments are built into one, can be the game changer. My concern is about the price. If these can be launched at affordable prices in India; nothing like it!”

Currently priced more than $550 in the United States, they are not yet listed for open sale in India. Based on the price point, it may cost more than Rs 42,000 in India. This cost, keeping in consideration how much students generally spend on modern smartphones, looks like a fair price. More importantly, this cost is almost 1/3rd of a traditional lab setup for enabling a student to work in a lab. The best part is that these devices also just cater and support electrical, telecommunications and optical engineering.

Universities can work on different models to make sure these are accessible to all students. One of these models could be bought in bulk from manufacturers at discounted prices, adding the cost of the device in the overall fee structure. Another model could be helping students in getting these financed on a semester-to-semester basis. Colleges can also try to create libraries of such devices where students can borrow them by paying rent. Students themselves can form groups and buy one device for the whole group. There can certainly be many more models around how these can be made available to students.

Enabling the future of engineering

Amidst all these positives, what is the future of the device once a student graduates from an engineering college? The answer lies in what a graduate will be doing at their first job. If they are into design, testing or validation, these devices will continue to serve him with the capabilities he has already mastered using the device. If in case the student decides to pursue an MBA, he can easily sell it to freshers, or donate the same to someone who cannot invest in buying one.

“If you look at our engineering colleges in Tessolve, a lot of them have the right script. If these devices come with a layer of languages I will not hesitate in giving these to my engineers. I already know that some of these are in use, and some of these are home made as well. I would love to see our engineers use such devices,” shares Iyer.

According to Skanda it depends from college to college, and student to student perspective whereas, Dr Vedula believes that moving completely online will never be a good idea. “Human beings have to interact face to face to learn, and such devices will definitely assist that. These devices will be something that can aid education and learning.” In conclusion, such devices enable a full time online education model benefitting the “New Normal.”

Note – This story is based on a panel discussion held at Tech World Congress 2021 and is compiled by Mukul Yudhveer Singh, Business Editor, Electronics For You.

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Mukul Yudhveer Singh
Mukul Yudhveer Singh
Mukul Yudhveer Singh is an Editor at EFY. He’s an experienced business journalist who is both an enthusiast and a cynic of technology. Believes in data, as well as hunch-based journalism. He defines journalism as- reporting facts which help the audience take their own decisions, not ones that influence them!

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