This ongoing research involves a departure from traditional laboratory instructional practices in that it seeks to forge a closer connection between lecture-based and laboratory courses. As such, the authors have devised a program that: (1) relinquishes a degree of control to students by providing them some flexibility in determining the subject of their experiments and in the development of experimental procedures and protocols, (2) uses mobile experimentation as a powerful and flexible tool in lecture-based coursework, and (3) expands the concept of the “laboratory” to include virtually everything outside of it. A pilot program in mobile experimentation and data acquisition that featured these approaches was conducted over two semesters. Students used PDAs to perform experiments using “real world” engineering systems that were found on or around campus. Such systems included: vehicle suspensions, elevators, auto-focus and strobe flash features of a camera, a suspension bridge model, mountain bike suspensions, and even themselves. Some groups measured and analyzed biomechanical data such as: impact forces on the leg muscles of a basketball player and the characterization of hand motion when performing repetitive tasks. The authors recognize that practical implementation of such activities on a large scale poses logistical and pedagogical challenges. However, preliminary assessment of the pilot program shows promise in overcoming these obstacles by exploiting the flexibility of PDAs. Further, the authors were excited to discover that the nature of the proposed experiments presented an opportunity to test three pedagogical hypotheses. (1) Since experimental test articles are not contrived, as in traditional labs, the student has to refine the experimental setup and repeat procedures several times. As the student makes common mistakes, he/she will better learn how to “debug” problems with the experimental setup, data acquisition, and overall procedures, thus achieving concept mastery in experimental design. (2) Results from the pilot program revealed that the nature of the activities resulted in a greater level of enthusiasm, engagement, and creativity among students, which will improve concept mastery. The authors have noted that this effect appears to be magnified with students whose grades tend to be average or below average. The authors posit that this approach is striking a chord in these students that originally inspired them to study engineering, and resonates with their particular style of learning. The authors wish to further investigate these connections through the use of PDA-based experimental activities. (3) Inserting experimentation into lecture-based courses places it temporally closer to learning theory. Thus, it enhances retention of key engineering concepts and theories. This was not feasible before the widespread accessibility of mobile computing technology.


First published in Proceedings of the ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition Conference. © 2009 American Society for Engineering Education.


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T. J. Connolly, K. J. Schmidt, and J. A. Kypuros, "Breaking Away from the Laboratory: Using Lean-Computing Technology to Merge Theory-Based Learning and Experimentation," Proceedings of the ASEE Conference and Exposition, Austin, TX, June 14-17, 2009.