Engineers are known for solving problems: it’s what they exist for. But Senior Lecturer Sam Wane’s problem-solving skills were seriously tested – and proven – thanks to his determination to deliver the right applied learning experience and due to the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant need to deliver remote tutorials and assessments.
Pre-pandemic, Sam already faced the problem of setting up 10 controllers on the Harper Adams campus to teach and assess his Control Theory students.
“These rigs are expensive to buy – they usually cost between £5,000 and £10,000 and when you take into consideration I needed ten and that the expensive models didn’t do the job in the way that we needed, I had to find an alternative”. So, being an experienced engineer and master of most things mechatronic, Sam constructed his own bespoke rigs. Problem solved? Yes – but only until Coronavirus struck and the lockdowns demanded online delivery.
Undeterred, Sam leapt into action in the University’s (now very quiet) Engineering Innovation Centre and worked to set up a rig with a webcam to enable him to broadcast the experiment to his students.
Not content to just demonstrate the controllers across the web Sam, with support from the university’s Information Systems department, created a system that enabled the students to remote in and use desktop controls to manipulate the rig.
“There was this absolute buzz when it started working,” Sam explained enthusiastically. “It’s like watching a baby learning how to walk. But this is something every engineer feels when something works!
“My moment of joy also came with the realisation that other things had to follow … I had to make five more. I had to change the assessment - and we needed to alter the firewall settings.
“There were issues, some foreseen some not – we knew internet connections and firewalls would pose problems and IT were really supportive and helped us a lot with these issues.”
The experiment and the online broadcast were live 24 hours a day, seven days a week and Sam found that his students took advantage of this by remotely accessing the experiments throughout the day and well into the night.
“We realised pretty quickly that we needed a booking system. We had 70 students trying to access the rigs all at the same time - we had to do something.”
Sam notes that, while there were some frustrations for students who were unable to access the lab directly as they normally would, the experience was a positive one overall, with every student able to hand in the coursework for their modules on time and take all the readings and photographs needed for the assignment.
“The students were great, they understood this was a quick fix solution to the pandemic and were patient when things went wrong or needed changing” he adds.
Pandemic aside, Sam is excited about the wider applications of his remote-access laboratory: “It could open up education to everyone across the world. Engineering is a hands-on degree and if students are disadvantaged in terms of access to hardware or facilities, they could remote access into the technology of other institutions.
“It also opens up a whole new level of knowledge sharing and potentially means that budgets and on-site technology are no longer barriers to teaching – an American university could remote access into Harper Adams and use our technology to teach their students and vice versa.”.
Sam is currently considering making a similar device that runs off a Raspberry Pi computer and through an independent internet connection, but as ever, his top priority, for now, is ensuring his students, undergraduate, postgraduate, and researchers, can all complete their studies.
To take a look at the rigs with Sam watch his youtube video here.