A ‘maker’ class students can take online

June 5, 2019

A screen grab showing a video used in BME 150, an online class on how to connect sensors and actuators to micro controllers.

Grace Niyo ’21 enjoys learning technical skills. The biomedical engineering major especially enjoyed learning how to connect sensors and actuators to micro controllers this past semester by taking BME 150.

“I would really recommend it to other students,” Niyo says. “There are so many projects that can be done by using knowledge from this course.”

And best of all, she didn’t have to worry about fitting BME 150 into her already crowded schedule of classes. In fact, she didn’t have to “attend” a class at all.

BME 150—Interfacing with Microcontrollers – is taught entirely online.

Illustration from BME 150 class.“The beauty of the course,” says Scott Seidman, professor of biomedical engineering, “is that students can do it at their desk, at home, or in their dorm, at 2 in the morning if that’s what they want to do.” 

Seidman says the two-credit “how do we hook stuff up” course serves several purposes:

  1. It fills a gap in what students can learn on their own from “maker community” online tutorials. “They can learn how to program the devices pretty well,” Seidman says. “But when it comes to actually hooking things up electrically to microcontrollers, they’re not getting that online. There have to learn some basics that they don’t even know they need to know.”
  2. Young engineering students who might be finding some of their coursework to be challenging can get an early “hands-on” experience – with no prerequisites – “so they can see their skills developing and will be motivated to stay in engineering longer so they can see what’s on the other side of those calculus and physics courses,” Seidman says.
  3. “We need to do what we can to help our students get jobs,” he adds, “and the more resume skills we can give them, the easier time they’re going to have.”

The course is set up in modules that students can complete at their own pace. Each module has a discussion board where students can ask or answer questions. “The students are graded partially on their level of participation, whether they are asking questions or answering them,” Seidman says. He also schedules in-lab office hours once a week for students who need additional help. 

Students keep blogs of their classwork and create a video of their final project.

The purchase of an Arduino microcontroller kit and some electronic tools and parts (about $55 total) are required in lieu of a textbook.

Sykes Award supported foray into online teaching 

A photo of Scott Seidman.Seidman began his foray into online teaching about four years ago. Each year he needed to schedule a computer lab for two weeks to show students how to run a simulation he includes as an exercise in his physiology lecture course. He realized it would be easier on himself – and the University’s Registrar’s Office – if he simply created an online module that the students could access on their own.

He took a six-week series of lunchtime seminars on online learning, offered to faculty through the University’s Office of Online Learning. “That was my hook,” Seidman says. It not only gave him the background he needed to produce the module for his physiology class, it emboldened him to create BME 150 as an entirely online course. 

He received funding from the Sykes Engineering Award, which provides seed money for faculty to create or improve classes, labs and other learning experiences for their students. This enabled him to set up a video studio in his office.

The result was the Hajim School’s first online course for credit. And one of the few online lab courses offered anywhere, Seidman says.

‘Students can learn an awful lot this way’

Seidman encourages other faculty members to consider online courses. It’s a great option when classroom and lab space is at a premium, for example. But there are some caveats, he says.

“One thing you’re not going to do by teaching an online course is save instructor time,” he cautions. “It takes every bit as much time or more, and it’s six times as important to make sure that everything is set up before the class starts.” Otherwise, he says – repeating an analogy he heard from Eric Fredricksen, the University’s associate vice president for online learning—“it’s like building an airplane while you’re trying to fly it.”

And not all courses lend themselves as easily to online teaching. Seidman says he wouldn’t teach his physiology class online. Or senior design courses. Or certain lab courses. “You may not be able to do some chemistry experiments at your dining room table,” he says.

But he’s seen real advantages to offering BME 150 online. The skills it teaches spill over into many other classes. So, when Seidman is advising a senior design team, for example, and a student has a question about hooking up a microcontroller, he can give the student guest user access to BME 150. Seidman says he would rather do that, than have to “keep teaching the same thing over and over again” in classes where he should be focusing on other things.

“I believe students can learn an awful lot this way,” Seidman says. In this case, teaching BME 150 online has helped students learn a skill they likely would not have acquired in their traditional classrooms. “And frankly, young people don’t necessarily need to learn it that way. We’re a university. We have to stay in touch with our students and figure out how they want to learn – and how we can offer that to them.”