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Coronavirus and online education: How this company’s virtual labs helped engineering colleges during pandemic

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MATLAB and Simulink are being used by over 6,500 colleges and universities globally in a variety of technical disciplines.

Coronavirus and education: With the end of coronavirus pandemic nowhere in sight, remote working and remote learning continue to be the norm globally. While schools and classes have shifted to online mode of teaching using video conferencing solutions, some aspects of education like practicals conducted in labs have been an issue. Without these practicals, the knowledge students gain remains merely theoretical in nature, making it difficult for them to apply it in real life at a later stage. This is an even more serious issue when it comes to online classes conducted by engineering colleges like IITs, where students take admission hoping to be ready to enter into the world of automation, AI, robotics, etc. Without practical lessons, however, the purpose of these institutions stands to be defeated.

The solution however, came in the form of MathWorks, a mathematical computing software developer. Its solutions, including MATLAB and Simulink, help in undertaking specialised tasks in various technological areas. Founded in 1984, MathWorks has been working in India for over 10 years now.

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Dr Lakshminarayan Viju Ravichandran, who leads the Education Technical Evangelist team at MathWorks India, works with universities here that focus on the application of MATLAB and Simulink in curriculum development and research. In an exclusive interaction with Financial Express Online, he shared more details about MATLAB and Simulink. “MATLAB, the language of engineers and scientists, is a programming environment for algorithm development, data analysis, visualization, and numeric computation. Simulink is a block diagram environment for dynamic system simulation and Model-Based Design of multidomain and embedded engineering systems. MATLAB and Simulink are used throughout the automotive, aerospace, communications, electronics, and industrial automation industries as fundamental tools for research and development. They are also used for modeling and simulation in increasingly technical fields, such as financial services and computational biology,” he said.

Demonstration of a simple mass-spring-damper setup via MATLAB App Designer which is used in many first- and second-year engineering courses.

Giving more details about how the two solutions are helpful in an education institution, he said, “Using MATLAB and Simulink, academicians can build engaging virtual labs by incorporating modeling and simulation, remotely accessing hardware and home lab kits. They can recreate the learning outcomes of lab exercises to give students hands-on experience using real-world modeling and simulation tools. MATLAB Apps allows students to experiment and learn foundational concepts in science and engineering without focusing on the code or software-specific skills. MATLAB and Simulink Projects provide opportunities to support virtual collaboration with lab activities or student design projects. Academicians use Live Editor to create lab activities with MATLAB code or an interactive lab manual using live scripts. Simulink, being a block diagram-based environment to model dynamic systems, can address the visual component of circuit labs, communication labs and mechanical labs in the form of blocks.”

MATLAB and Simulink are being used by over 6,500 colleges and universities globally in a variety of technical disciplines. In India, hundreds of institutions are making use of these virtual labs, Dr Ravichandran said, including several IITs, NITs, and government and private colleges. “In addition to creating our own library of examples, MathWorks is collecting virtual lab examples from educators across the world that use MATLAB and Simulink in teaching,” he said.

But why are such virtual labs important? Dr Ravichandran answers. “Teaching methodologies need to support different learning approaches as well as inspiring and engaging students. Project-based learning is an effective way to achieve this. By getting students working hands-on, they explore real-world problems and bring theory to life. Key to the success are projects that are fun and inspiring for students – they can work on applications ranging from robotics to signal processing to control systems. In doing so, they’re also learning approaches and skills that are relevant. By extending this approach to incorporate industry-standard software such as MATLAB and Simulink, instructors not only keep students motivated but also prepare them for Industry 4.0 careers,” he said.

Talking about the problems that students learn to tackle using these solutions, he said, “The MathWorks solutions introduce students to the fundamentals of Artificial Intelligence which include mathematics, statistics. At higher semesters, machine learning and deep learning tools are introduced. In the field of robotics and autonomous systems, the students get exposed to control systems, computer vision and interfacing with Robot Operating System (ROS). Electrification is another area we see lots of interest in, in India. Courses such as power system analysis and power electronics form the basis of battery management systems in electric vehicles. The workflows are used by leading companies in the development of their products and by getting exposure to these workflows at the college level, the student today is well-positioned to solve not just the real-world problems of today, but also that of tomorrow.”

Semantic Segmentation to identify moving objects, roads and other surfaces – a key concept used in automated driving – introduced in an Image Processing and Computer Vision course.

MathWorks also came to the aid of institutions during the pandemic. “In August 2020, the MathWorks India Education team conducted a series of webinars on Teaching with MATLAB and Simulink to assist the faculty move to an online mode of instruction with MATLAB and Simulink in the academic space. By addressing the learning outcomes of courses in various disciplines, we were able to provide an initial start to the evolution of an online teaching process by multiple professors. This is an ongoing process since the challenges faced by academicians in India are unique and the MathWorks Education team continues to work with the professors in this space to address the challenges in online teaching and learning continually. Understanding the challenges and the need to share practices globally for the community of educators, we also created a distance learning community online. This is a world-wide community for educators who are teaching remotely or online using MathWorks tools. It houses resources, such as articles, code examples, and videos, as well as an area where community members can ask questions or hold discussions around best practices in distance learning,” he said.

Talking about the response they have received from students and professors so far, Dr Ravichandran said, “The response from the faculty members who had little time to switch to an online mode of instruction in this pandemic has been positive. Interactivity and engagement is a challenge with online learning. Professors have been addressing this by incorporating interactive learning components using MATLAB and Simulink in their coursework. The students are taking the classes from different parts of the world. Students with limited computation resources and bandwidth access MATLAB through browser via MATLAB Online.”

“For example, Professor Chiranjoy Chattopadhyay from Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur implemented a fully virtual strategy for his course on Parallel Computing. He used the browser version of MATLAB also called MATLAB Online, the self-paced online training course MATLAB Onramp, and MATLAB Grader for automated grading of programming assignments. His feedback was, ‘Perhaps the biggest realization we’ve come to is that during a lockdown, learning objectives do not need to change, as long as you adapt to the situation by implementing the right infrastructure and tools’,” he added.

He also talked about the ways in which virtual labs are benefiting educators. “Using MATLAB and Simulink, educators can teach virtual or remote labs, or teach with hardware kits to increase student participation and active learning. They can create visually engaging lab activities, Simulate laboratory equipment and processes with Simulink. MATLAB projects to track group work and control lab activities. Live scripts can be used to explore course concepts and create interactive reports or electronic lab notebooks. Virtual labs simulate a process, test, apparatus or activity. On a remote mode, students can access the hardware on campus or if one has hardware at home like Arduino and raspberry pi kits they can use those kits or even mobile devices to collect data,” Dr Ravichandran said.

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