Engineers and scientists spend countless hours learning in the classroom and poring over academic journals, but nothing compares to the training they receive in the laboratory. Hands-on education allows them to experience the backbone of engineering and science--conducting experiments, testing hypotheses, learning from their mistakes, and reaching their own conclusions.
For students with disabilities that prevent them from using their arms, the lab has been a place for observation, not action. Now, in a novel extension of the innovative computer-based tutoring technology he developed, Brian P. Butz, a professor of electrical engineering at Temple University, is helping these students to overcome their disabilities and get the most out of their learning experiences.
Butz has created a "virtual electrical laboratory," which replicates actual lab conditions and allows students to conduct hands-on research, and a "virtual office" to step into if they need help--all without leaving their computer terminals.
Using their voices, head signals, pointers, and other input devices, students can instruct the virtual lab to gather and operate instruments and tools one would find in any electrical engineering laboratory. They can hook up voltage meters and signal generators, for example, input the values and levels they want to check, and record the results. If they have questions, they can call up the virtual office--depicted on the monitor in a realistic manner--and click on a bookshelf to obtain reference materials, a file cabinet for background materials, and a tutor for help.
The core of the virtual laboratory is the Interactive Multimedia Intelligent Tutoring System (IMITS), the program Butz developed to augment more traditional computer tutorials by adding an "expert system" that "learns" from those using it. As a student answers a series of questions, the program determines what the student knows and does not know and how he or she likes to learn. IMITS then creates an individualized program of study for the student.
The idea grew partly out of the volunteer work Butz does at Inglis House, a Philadelphia residence for people with disabilities. There, while observing a friend with muscular dystrophy using voice-recognition technology to "talk" to a computer, he thought of IMITS.
"I just put the two together," Butz recalls. "I had all the software to put a virtual laboratory together, so I applied to the NSF to get financial support for its development. It seemed like a natural thing to do. It's going to be a fantastic project. Nothing else is near this."
Butz receives substantial National Science Foundation support for IMITS and is waiting to hear whether the NSF will support further work on the virtual lab.
Working with electrical engineering students and Leonard Kasday, a colleague in Temple's Institute on Disabilities/University Affiliated Program, Butz assembled a team with expertise in input/output devices, computer software, and assisting people with disabilities. Many of the undergraduates plan to remain in Temple?s College of Engineering in order to pursue their master?s degrees, leading Butz to express optimism that refinement of the project will continue.
"All the pieces are lined up," he says. "Between us we have a unique blend of experience here. I'm very hopeful."
Butz's team is creating a series of projects for IMITS to assign to students who are working in the virtual lab. The simulated lab projects are set up with video clips- produced by and starring team members--that run on the computer monitors.
In one, emergency room doctors work feverishly to revive a heart patient only to find their defibrillator is defective. Butz, playing the lead doctor, turns to the camera and asks, "Is there an engineer in the house?" The virtual office returns to the monitor, and the student is signalled to check his e-mail to receive the new assignment. Butz is now playing a different role, the head of an engineering company, who orders his employee, the student, to fix the defibrillator. The student then goes to work in the virtual lab; if successful, a video clip displays the patient coughing and returning to life, and if unsuccessful, a sheet is drawn over the patient's face.
The above story is based on materials provided by Temple University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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