The Teaching Lab Of Tomorrow
My name is Lee Morgan and I’m a business development manager for IoT and Power applications at Tektronix. I’m spending the month as a visiting blogger on DesignSpark. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be blogging about how the teaching labs in electronic engineering departments are evolving to improve the efficiency of the instructor, student, and lab manager. Recently, I started a parallel blogging track about advancements in RF test, particularly in the IoT domain. If you are interested, you’ll find the links to this track at the end of this article.
The Traditional Teaching Lab
My job has taken me into a lot of research facilities and when I’m there I like to poke my nose into the teaching labs to remind myself of the sights, sounds, and smells of when I was studying for my degree in Electronics. A superficial look around the labs tells me that most have not changed too much in the years since I was a student. You still have the traditional rows of benches, typically with 20 to 40 individual stations per lab. Each station is usually stacked with four core, common instruments – the scope, the function generator, the digital multimeter and the power supply. The laboratory class is an integral part of the engineering curriculum, enabling students to explore theoretical concepts taught in the classroom. Most students get their first taste of how to build and test many of the fundamental building blocks in electronics in these lab sessions, such as the 555 timer, a Class A amplifier, a latch or a phase locked loop. Now when I was in college, the scope was typically an old cathode ray tube instrument (often looking like a derivative of some of those props in the recent incarnation of Ghostbusters). Some basic instructions were handed out at the start of the class and then I’d have to gather the items I needed. For the lab, I would draw the waveforms I saw on my scope into my lab book or onto a worksheet, note down my results and hand them up to the lecturer. Not much thought was put into the workflow of the lab and how to possibly improve this.
Next Generation Teaching Labs
However, now the workflow in labs is changing quite a bit. One important requirement that has emerged, like in every other aspect of our professional lives, is the need to do more with less time and resources. Today’s labs need to be more efficient and utilize the tools and advantages of the Internet Age. The integration of full digital instruments and networking capabilities offer engineering departments the opportunity to create better teaching, better managed, and better learning environments. Now, while some labs and students utilize USB thumb drives or smartphones to capture and record data for creating reports in Word or Excel, the teaching lab of tomorrow will be a fully network-based setup. Each instrument will be connected to a central server, allowing lab instructors to create or access pre-defined laboratory instructions and then push the material to each station instantly. These labs will contain detailed instructions, allowing students to follow a step-by-step guide to complete the task, save the results to a report and then push the report back to the instructor. Finally, the lab manager will be able to quickly control, update or audit the lab’s instrumentation from their PC. These improvements not only make a practical difference to the individual contributors in a teaching lab, but for those engineering departments that embrace this idea first, it offers them a key differentiator in the University’s prospectus in a highly competitive effort to attract the top young talent to their institutions.
Figure 1- The TekSmartLab Ecosystem
Tektronix has been pioneering this migration in the test and measurement world during recent years, with the introduction of TekSmartLab, the TDS1000-EDU oscilloscope, and now with the exciting new TBS2000 Series oscilloscope. Future labs will require advancements in both hardware connectivity and software control. The TekSmartLab already has a combination of these two features. On the hardware side, the TBX300A is a control hub that allows the lab manager to easily connect up to six instruments together via USB and then network them back to a central PC station. The networking can be done via LAN or wirelessly with Wi-Fi. On the software side, TSL3000B is an application that runs on the lecturer’s or manager’s PCs supporting the control of up to 100 benches and 400 instruments simultaneously. It supports both the latest products from Tektronix and Keithley, such as the TBS2000, or legacy Tektronix instruments. The TBX3000A hardware automatically connects and configures each instrument into the system. With the TSL3000B software, the lab instructor has the ability to monitor the activity of each station in the lab, load configurations and give remote assistance to students. Figure 2a shows the summary view available to either the lab manager or instructor. The green blocks show active, working stations, grey boxes are inactive and red shows an error. The instructor can then remotely monitor and view the settings of each instrument as shown in Figure 2a.Figure 2b shows the view the lab manager has of the instrumentation at each station.
Figure 2a – TekSmartLab System Summary View Figure 2b–TekSmartLab Remote Access Instrument View
This remote access allows lab managers to click on, view and control the instrumentation state and waveforms, helping the students from a centralized position. Now lab instructors can push configurations to the instruments and load specific instructions for the lab using Tektronix’s Courseware feature. All instruments can be instantly updated by a single click from the instructor’s station. Control includes the ability to disable some features such as Autoset on the scope, encouraging learning by forcing students to adjust the equipment manually.
Reporting and Retrieving Results
Once a system for controlling and configuring the lab is in place, these future labs hold the opportunity to standardize the saving and retrieving of test results. In the case of the Tektronix TekSmartLab, the TBS2000 has the ability to save and record screenshots or measurement results. The TekSmartLab server can be used to automatically create a web page for each bench on the local network and assign a unique address based on the lab server’s IP address and the assigned bench or station number. The lab manager can also generate and print a Quick Response (QR) code for each station. Students then have the ability to scan the QR code via their smart device to log in and retrieve their test results. Test results with the instrument model and serial number, student’s ID, results and comments can then be downloaded locally and archived on the server at the same time. This online retrieving and saving ensures the consistency of test results’ formats, prevents students from cheating and archiving. Figure 3 shows the process flow of saving and retrieving reports through TekSmartLab.
Figure 3 – TekSmartLab Report Saving Features
Next Generation Teaching Lab Oscilloscopes
The oscilloscopes in these future labs also need to keep up pace with the lab’s changing needs on top of the standardized and centralized control of the equipment. From a connectivity point of view, institutions want the freedom of choice on how to set up their labs. They don’t want to be tied to a single method of connectivity such as GPIB. The TBS2000, shown in Figure 4 from Tektronix offers USB2.0, Wi-Fi or LAN connectivity to allow complete choice within engineering departments. In addition to this connectivity is remote access. The TBS2000 is LXI compliant with a browser-based control interface over the LAN. This is shown in Figure 5. Students can easily access, view and control the scope from a remote PC.
Figure 4 – The New Tektronix TBS2000
Figure 5 - LXI Remote Interface to the Tektronix TBS2000
For senior students working on final degree projects, it becomes less import for them to become familiar with the basic controls of a scope and more important for them to be an efficient user. The TBS2000 advances the teaching lab instrument by supplying 32 automatic measurements along with a description of each using Tektronix’s HelpEverywhere feature. And this feature is not just confined to measurements - HelpEverywhere gives quick instructions in all menus including the Trigger, Cursor and Math functions, allowing the student to quickly access advanced features. Finally, for a deeper understanding, the TBS2000 also includes an integrated handbook, giving a detailed description of each menu. Coupled with the largest screen, an incredible 20M point record length and detailed cursor readouts, the TBS2000 is the Cadillac of bench scopes in the third level education.
The teaching lab is changing in many aspects including the instrumentation on lab benches. Complete connectivity and control of instruments is the first step to greatly improving productivity of the instructor, manager, and student in the lab. Then the capability to push and pull information seamlessly between the student and their professor will be a critical aspect of the next generation of teaching labs. Tektronix already supplies this future lab today. The TBS2000 scope is the industry’s leading scope for teaching labs while TekSmartLab brings both the hardware and software requirements needed to network and control all instrumentation and course results in the lab.
The final piece of the puzzle is the ability to create, distribute and reuse course material in an efficient manner. Next week I will discuss tools used to do this, including Tektronix’s Courseware, which is connecting Professors around the world and streamlining the creation and deployment of lab courses in our teaching institutions. Fancy a different topic altogether? Why not check out my RF blogs on the Interference of Things, cost effective EMI pre-compliance, and real-time spectrum analyzers.
Thanks for reading! Please feel free to ask questions or share your comments in the comments below.
Lee Morgan is an Account Manager with Tektronix UK Ltd, with over 16 years’ worth of experience in the Test & Measurement sector, covering a multitude of roles in the Mobile Telecommunication, Electrical & Power industry, he has an excellent insight into how modern Test & Measurement Equipment can aid the engineers of today in creating the products of tomorrow.