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Students Explore Electronics with ‘Lab in a Box’ Kits

Electrical, Computer Engineering Majors Put Theory into Practice

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Working with Prof. Jay Weitzen, computer engineering graduate Erin Webster has developed “Lab in a Box,” a complete, low-cost electronics workbench that is portable and flexible.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Incoming freshmen in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) program are getting hands-on training and design experience in electronics, thanks to the “Lab in a Box” learning kits developed by Erin Webster, a recent computer engineering graduate and ECE teaching assistant.

Webster, working with ECE Prof. Jay Weitzen and technology companies Analog Devices and Digilent, created the kits as an innovative approach to getting young people excited about engineering and, eventually, help prepare them to enter the workforce.

“We need to provide engineering students not only with math, physics and engineering theory, but also significant hands-on laboratory and open-ended design experiences so they are ready for high-technology jobs of the 21st century,” says Webster, whose work has been featured in Forbes, Electronic Design and Planet Analog.

Lab in Box consists of an Analog Discovery module that connects to a PC via USB and functions as an oscilloscope, waveform generator, logic analyzer, voltmeter and power supply. The kit also comes with a Parallax microprocessor board; basic electronic components such as resistors, capacitors and LEDs and the software to run everything.

“This is not a virtual lab, with PC-based simulations of circuits and presumed results,” explains Weitzen. “This is a real, working electronics lab. Students build basic circuits, collect analog and digital data and analyze the results.”

Lab in Box offers many of the capabilities of a standard electronics test bench but at a fraction of the cost.

“Traditional engineering laboratories are expensive to run and maintain,” says Webster. “Lab in a Box costs about the same as an engineering textbook, and it allows students to take as much time as they want to do the experiments. Students need interesting, fun and challenging hands-on projects during their first year and throughout their education to keep them engaged and enthusiastic about engineering.”

And because students only need a laptop computer to run the kit, they can take it practically anywhere: dorms, dining halls and even outdoors. Students can repeat the experiments, take extra time, innovate, tinker, create their own projects or simply play, 24/7.

Sharing the Technology in India

In collaboration with Alan Rux of the Assistive Technology Program and Dean Emeritus Krishna Vedula, Webster and Weitzen are currently using the Lab in a Box kit and curriculum to establish similar programs at three universities in India: the Shri Vishnu Engineering College for Women, the co-ed B. V. Raju Institute of Technology (BVRIT) and the new BVRIT Hyderabad College of Engineering for Women.

“Historically, these schools could teach only theory because there was no money for test equipment,” notes Weitzen. “Power outages are also a common, unavoidable occurrence there, but this lab kit is entirely USB-powered so it can continue to function with a laptop during blackouts.”

“There is no substitute for hands-on experience — you cannot compensate for it with more theory and textbooks, which is why making Lab in a Box affordable to Indian undergraduate students is so crucial,” says Webster, who has traveled to the country three times.

Breaking the Stereotype

“Erin has been breaking molds and stereotypes since her undergraduate days here,” says Weitzen. “She is an electronic hobbyist, tinkerer and hacker.”

At this year’s Commencement, Webster was awarded the University Medal for Community Service.

“We believe the Lab in a Box program’s first year is a great success,” says Weitzen. “This work is being published at several engineering education conferences this summer.” 

“Through the Lab in a Box, we hope to level the playing field and, in the process, improve student retention, add value to potential employers of our engineering graduates and increase the number of female engineering students,” says Webster, who plans to pursue her master’s degree at UMass Lowell.

“As a successful female engineering student, I found too often I was the only female in my lab sections,” she adds. “I saw many of my female engineering friends become discouraged at the challenges due to the gap in their incoming hands-on learning experience and leave engineering to pursue other passions. I want to see successful female engineers as the norm.”