College of Engineering News Room

Online Learning Ventures into a Lab Setting

By Brad Stager

Aspiring engineering students at the University of South Florida are confronting, virtually, the reality that engineering is about solving problems.

As online education becomes more common, ways of imparting knowledge to students remotely are being developed and refined, to the extent that even lab courses requiring students to demonstrate what they are learning are successfully taking place.

That is the case with the College of Engineering’s Foundations of Engineering Lab which students must pass to be admitted to one of the college’s programs.

More than 500 pre-engineering students are divided among eight sections with labs further organized into teams of about five students each that design and build working autonomous robots appealing to middle school students. Department of Medical Engineering Professor Olukemi Akintewe - who teaches the class and is also the college’s First-Year Engineering Experiential Learning Director - said the goal is to develop an engineering mindset by engaging students in project-based learning modules built on the design-thinking framework.


Kemi Akintewe

Department of Medical Engineering Professor Olukemi "Kemi" Akintewe, Ph.D.

“We want students to get a really good start in engineering and give them a practical, hands-on experience,” Akintewe said.

She adds that those enrolled in Foundations of Engineering Lab reflect a change in the engineering field, with greater numbers of students from historically underrepresented groups and some teams staffed entirely by minorities or women.

Consumer robotic project kits are purchased by students and have access to needed software, such as Arduino IDE, Tinker CAD and MATLAB, through the CCollee's Mini-Circuits Design for X Laboratory and USF Application Gateway.

For first-year student Stephanie Lue, the collaborative nature of engineering has proven to be a means of developing new strengths as she and her classmates learn they can depend on each other through online breakout sessions.

“They presented multiple opportunities for me to practice effective collaboration with a diverse group of people, leading to unanticipated group discussions, articulation of ideas, communication and most importantly, creating a space where each person feels comfortable in sharing their ideas and opinions,” said Lue, who is interested in solving water resource problems after graduating.

In order to construct a working robot, students purchased STEM education kits online - primarily from Amazon. The company is a major player for Internet shopping in the United States, but its reach does not extend to all the homes of international students, some of who were taking the class from countries where the retailer does not conduct business. In those cases, students were given assignments such as writing code and analyzing data that did not require possession and handling of hardware, or they were provided guidance on obtaining substitute kits.

The class is intended to follow a project from concept to product, and students serve in positions such as lead design engineers to pull the team members’ candidate design ideas together. Cuodi Cromartie, who is interested in cybersecurity, fulfills that role for his team and said the online lab experience developed his communication skills to complement the technical expertise he gained since holding  an early interest in technology.

“I was intrigued on how things worked and that interest eventually stemmed to robotics and programming," Cromartie said. "I ended up going to a high school that revolved around the STEM field where I grew more accustomed to engineering and programming.”

While the teaching may be taking place online, the synchronous learning model (students learning at the same time and place) is used with students logging on to the appropriate learning platform such as Canvas or MS Teams for lessons. Even when viewing online, the excitement and sense of accomplishment are palpable when the motor turns the wheels on a team’s robot for the first time.

The operational robots produced by the lab teams is for educating middle schools students so those younger students can become acquainted with STEM topics, but first they must pass the scrutiny of a team’s quality assurance test engineering lead such as Marina Tobias, who is interested in biomedical engineering and said that she is learning more than practical skills like troubleshooting and coding.

“The class has also educated me on the overall proper protocols and procedures that an engineer must follow, such as engineering ethics, and has broadened my knowledge of the different engineering majors and jobs,” Tobias said.

Akintewe said ethics and accountability are indeed important professional development elements of the lab and are factors in answering a question she asks.

“What do we want our graduates to look like in four years?” she said.

Akintewe added that the lab also allows for a mentoring opportunity to reach young people in the schools that are interested in receiving the robots as STEM learning aids.

“We want to intrigue them, so they aspire to become engineers,” she said.