Transforming Hands-on to a Virtual Learning Experience

Transforming Hands-on to a Virtual Learning Experience
ISE Magazine January 2021 Volume: 53 Number: 1
By Kevin Jay Kaufman-Ortiz, Victoria Wang-Mora and Lourdes A. Medina

As industrial engineers, we are problem-solvers expected to develop a wide range of skills to help improve processes and systems. With the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the problems require minimizing human intervention through process digitalization and automation.

Process automation has always been an area of growth be-coming even more relevant during the pandemic. For more than 35 years, a strong curriculum component in this area at the Department of Industrial Engineering at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez (UPRM) requires students to learn about circuits, electronics and process automation.

This process automation course (ININ 4057) translates theoretical knowledge into practice. In this course, we are expected to build an automated process prototype (; see other video links on Page 37) with minimal human intervention through the integration of Fishertechnik building blocks, a controller, sensors and actuators. The automation laboratory at UPRM contains materials and equipment to promote hands-on learning experiences. The materials in the lab include Fishertechnik building blocks, sensors (photoelectric, inductive, phototransistors, limit switches, etc.), actuators (motors, lights, buzzers, electromagnets, etc.) power supplies and a robust pneumatic system.

With the spring 2020 semester interrupted in March by a lockdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we wondered how we would be able to substitute a completely hands-on experience into a virtual environment. We could not work at the lab; materials were not enough to take a kit home (with projects traditionally being done in groups of three) and the software verification and validation seemed almost impossible. During these unprecedented times, we needed to be creative, have an open mind and positive attitude to make the best out of the situation.

As we retell our story, it is our responsibility to highlight that this is a bilateral perspective that may not fully represent everyone’s individual circumstances. We decided to write from the lens of how we turned this historical experience into an opportunity of growth.

When the quarantine started, educators faced the challenge of having to pivot mid-semester and readjust instructional plans to fit this new reality. They had to learn new technologies within days and create months’ worth of content in just a few weeks. In our case, we were lucky we had learned how to work with several sensors and actuators before the pandemic started. Thankfully, the topics we had yet to cover were mostly different programming techniques, such as with a programmable logic controller (PLC) using ladder logic, grafcets and pneumonic code. Once these were discussed remotely, they were complemented by hands-on laboratory exercises. The challenge came with the project.

There was no physical process nor PLC to implement the project and fully debug the software. After acquiring the foundation knowledge, all that was left was to substitute the class’ final project with a virtual experience. We had to employ our creativity and find online sources to make possible a virtual mock-up.

Animated 3D drawings of the process were made with Sketchup and PowerPoint while detailed circuit drawings were completed in a diversity of programs. We were able to write the program in the PLC software through a virtual private network (VPN) connection to the automation lab. How-ever, creativity was needed to develop a troubleshooting plan in which scenario ideation and process mock-ups (computerized and physical) allowed us to verify the model in terms of having the necessary components (sensors and actuators) and the correct software.

We had the opportunity to work with an extremely dedicated team. Regardless of the extraordinary challenges, the professor and teacher assistants were able to keep the group engaged with multiple weekly live chats and calls. They made themselves accessible to us out of regular class and office hours. At the end of the day, this flexibility and excessive communication was crucial to keep the momentum going strong and maximize our learning potential.

The experience of completing an online semester was definitely an enormous challenge for students and faculty members. Nevertheless, we choose to look back on this semester as a way to strengthen our resilience. Students were given plenty of flexibility since they were no longer tied to a class schedule. This reality tested our ability to navigate ambiguity, responsibly manage our time and strategically prioritize our work.

Aside from this, many students and faculty members did face difficulties, including financial hardships and emotional distress that compromised their well-being. Together we all carried our own weight to face this mammothsized obstacle head-on, and many of us made it through all the way to the other side.

Overall, we believe this experience should not be taken for granted. As an academic community, we were forced to implement major changes, many of which were long overdue. It is still hard to imagine a solution that could replace face-to-face interactions without compromising the quality of our education. Nonetheless, the creativity brought up by those committed to finishing the semester allowed us to reach new heights in what we are all able to accomplish. It is safe to say that this obstacle stretched the limits of everyone’s comfort zones, pushing us to come up with innovative ideas that will make our classroom experiences more adaptable for the future.

Looking ahead, we hope the University of Puerto Rico’s students and faculty members do not look at this as a risk management issue but rather as a wakeup call to embrace technology and flexibility where it is relevant – not because it is the only way to move forward, but because it is the best we can do for those we serve. It takes courage to let go of what no longer works. It takes integrity to reinvent ourselves when faced with adversity.