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Labs on a Shoestring - From donated industrial equipment to homemade parts and student-purchased kits, schools get creative in providing active-learning experiences. + BY MARY LORD

When John Marshall arrived at the University of Southern Maine to teach engineering technology 15 years ago, he found an antiquated lab and no funds to re-equip it. So the Texas A&M transplant loaded a 5-gallon pail with tools, hit the road, and started scavenging. “I was a traveling dismantling machine,” recalls Marshall. At first his search yielded mediocre pumps, controllers, and other common manufacturers’ discards. But local businesses came to realize they had a go-to contact at the university who could supply interns with the relevant skills. In return, they helped Marshall’s lab acquire higher-quality equipment, giving his students exposure to real-world problem solving.

Today, hands-on learning, business partnerships, and motivated students are hallmarks of USM’s revamped engineering technology offerings. Marshall, an associate professor of technology with expertise in hydraulics, pneumatics, and industrial processes, not only carries a full teaching load but also created and now heads his department’s first internship and co-op program. Meanwhile, an industry advisory board ensures classes keep pace with the latest manufacturing and hiring trends while helping develop state-of-the-art curricula.

Many engineering educators struggle to provide students with authentic active-learning experiences on increasingly meager budgets. Some turn to virtual labs that don’t require hefty outlays for specialized components. Others, like faculty members from Louisiana Tech’s College of Engineering Science, have designed lab equipment and enlisted students and machine-shop technicians to fabricate it. Louisiana Tech also developed a first-year projects lab that uses inexpensive components and tools students purchase—an empowering approach that “is changing the way we do engineering education,” reports mechanical engineering Prof. David Hall. Meanwhile, UCLA’s electrical engineering department recently overhauled its circuits lab, easing scheduling headaches by replacing traditional oscilloscopes and signal generators with $100 kits that allow students to do labs at home.

Few, however, leverage industrial collaborations to transform a learning environment the way Marshall has. Consider the power and automation curriculum. Recognizing their need for trained technicians, local manufacturers subsidized the purchase of specialized mechanical-power transmission modules for the learning lab, allowing students to gain hands-on insights into gears, motors, vibration analysis, and other fundamentals. Industry partners also supplied two state-of-the-art hydraulic trainers for the sophomore-level fluid power course — enhancing student understanding of hydraulics and pneumatics through the touch, sound, and motion of pumps, flow-control valves, and other components. “There are no toys in my lab,” declares Marshall, noting that working on real equipment boosts his students’ confidence and comfort levels, giving them a leg up in job interviews. “It’s a two-way street. Everybody wins.”

One of Marshall’s most engaging — and commercially valuable — methods for conveying technical content involves a ubiquitous industrial device called the programmable logic controller, or PLC. Invented in 1969 and now one of the industrial electronics sector’s fastest-growing segments, PLCs are a form of computer that automates the steps in a process or machine operation more reliably than the mechanical timers, drum switches, or other components they have replaced. “This little device is the very heartbeat of the world,” explains Marshall, citing its use in areas from medicine and manufacturing to waste management and the military. “Every time you come to a stop at an intersection and the sensor in the ground tells the light to change, or get into an elevator and push a button, you have legitimate insight on programmable controllers.” Another plus: PLCs can be programmed and operated by plant engineers or maintenance personnel who lack a strong background in computers.

PLCs form the core of Marshall’s junior-level Applied Process Control Engineering course. Students learn such core competencies as programming, wiring, and debugging software in three-hour weekly labs that require them to develop logic programs with the exact sequence of inputs and outputs to solve a problem. Typical projects include controlling traffic lights so pedestrians can cross an intersection safely, and tracking cars entering and exiting a parking garage to illuminate either a “Lot Full” or “Spaces Available” sign. Beyond programming, students must figure out how to make the PLC control tricky components like solenoid directional control valves. Such project-based problem solving “really closes the loop for students,” contends Marshall, adding that without the ability to work on industry equipment, “it’s just surface learning.” By contrast, his students often get so motivated by making headway on their automated cell or getting lights to sequence properly that “dismissal hour comes and goes and nobody leaves.” Marshall lets them linger. “I enjoy just seeing them make progress,” he says.


Photos Courtesy of University of Southern Maine
Technology professor John Marshall has “no toys” in his lab at the University of Southern Maine, where he uses industry-donated programmable logic controllers (insert) like this one designed by students to teach hydraulics, pneumatics, and process automation.
Photos Courtesy of University of Southern Maine

Civility Rules

Several teaching techniques augment Marshall’s lab activities. For starters, he establishes a “congenial, nonthreatening classroom environment.” His three rules of civility: Turn off laptops, put electronic devices on mute, and permit only one person to speak at a time. “Some students call me a dictator,” acknowledges Marshall, who walks around snapping off computers. “They’re offended! They’re used to sitting in the back of the room texting!”

Frequent, quick assessments help Marshall gauge whether individuals and teams have nailed a lesson. Rather than give pop quizzes that count for or against someone’s GPA, for example, he might ask students to draw a circle on a piece of scrap paper, then divide that “pie” into portions corresponding to the amount of work each member of the team did on the project. The anonymous assessment is then gone over in class. The process “allows natural leaders to evolve,” says Marshall, and makes it “blatantly obvious” to slackers that they’re below par. Students also know that as the internship and co-op director, he places graduates and isn’t going to send employers any “losers.” Marshall also favors the “one-minute paper,” which asks students to jot quick responses to such queries as what was the muddiest point in today’s class. If a student is puzzled enough to write something down, he says, others probably are struggling with the same issue.

The goal is for students to master specific competencies that employers demand. Each skill is mapped back to specific courses that either teach or reinforce those key skills. That way, if an adjunct must teach the course or the instructor takes a leave of absence, there’s a “road map” to follow.

Mastering the latest industrial techniques is crucial for instructors, too. As a result of relationships forged with major Maine companies – including service on the boards of several – Marshall now has carte blanche to sit in on their advanced training courses and attend workshops. “Having a level of competency increases your ability to help students,” explains Marshall. “You can steer students around bear traps better.”

No Strain on the Budget

Strong relationships with manufacturers – and a record of producing graduates who can hit the ground running – means Marshall can now afford to be picky about equipment. Initially forced to take any kind of pneumatic, he has been able to replace a dangerous-to-activate 110-volt model with a safer 24-volt version, providing students with more real-life situations. Last semester, his class was building robots and needed a proximity sensor, a component that costs hundreds of dollars. “I’d be wasting my breath trying to get funding from the department,” says Marshall, noting there are no funds for faculty travel and everything else has been cut to the bone. He mentioned his quest in a casual conversation with an industry partner one afternoon. The next morning, he arrived at his office to find a paper bag with the sensor inside.

Marshall’s approach to engineering technology education is beginning to have an impact beyond the university. The competencies he has spelled out have been adopted by several local community colleges, which have two-plus-two agreements with USM. Students now transfer into the four-year engineering technology program with such a strong background that Marshall has been able to raise standards. With USM’s blessing, he teaches one day a week at a community college and encourages local high school students to visit the learning lab, where Marshall’s students build a PLC or pneumatic module with them. He shows teachers how they can teach algebra, calculus, or physics with the use of compressed air. PLCs are “a good tool to help clarify and take the mystery out of math concepts,” says Marshall.

After a few years in industry, Marshall’s graduates all make more money than he does. Moreover, the industry partnership has become a two-way street: Manufactures now send employees to the program, filling Marshall’s classes with nontraditional and first-generation students who are there for the skill set rather than the degree. “They bring a wealth of knowledge to the table,” observes Marshall. “If the professor has the ability to create a good learning environment, everybody learns from everybody.”

Mary Lord is deputy editor of Prism.

Photos at top: Louisiana Tech engineering students learn manufacturing processes on the lathe while freshmen in the First-Year Projects Labs (right) use hand tools, software, and Arduino microcontrollers each must purchase to regulate temperature in a fish tank.
Photos courtesy of Louisiana Tech University.


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