THE INSTITUTE The COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities around the world to hold classes remotely. Most lectures are held as video conferences, but for engineering studies, conducting virtual hands-on lab experiments are important, says Marco Winzker. The IEEE senior member is head of the Centre for Teaching Development and Innovation at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, in Sankt Augustin, Germany.
The school has opened up its remote lab on field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) for anyone in the world to attend for free. An FPGA is a programmable integrated circuit with elements such as logic gates, flip-flops, and RAM. FPGAs are used for many applications such as Internet routers, professional video cameras, and driver-assistance technology in cars.
“The lab provides the opportunity for students to perform experiments with real hardware over the Internet such as for designing digital circuits, which can be found in all modern electronic equipment,” Winzker says.
Students use Verilog and VHDL to describe the function of an image-processing algorithm. With design software, they translate the code for the FPGA circuit. Then they can log into the remote lab, upload the code, and observe how their circuit design works in the FPGA, Winzker says. The remote lab provides interactivity, so students can upload image signals for processing and operate input switches for the FPGA. The result of the image processing is sent back to the students.
The lab is available year-round and supported by lecture videos on YouTube.
The school has partnered on the remote lab with three universities. The Universidad Tecnológica Nacional in Buenos Aires and the Universidad Nacional de San Luis are both in Argentina. The Chernihiv National University of Technology is in Ukraine.
More than 100 students attend from 30 countries including France, Morocco, Sweden, and the United States as well as Argentina and Ukraine, Winzker says.
“The course offers students an opportunity for international cooperation despite travel restrictions,” he says. “Our students get to interact with people from other countries and practice English language in a work environment. They will need this competence in their professional life.”
Winzker says one of the lectures covers using FPGAs in cars for lane detection. Students learn how to program a chip to highlight the transition from dark blacktop to a bright lane-marking line in video obtained from a windshield-mounted camera.
“This is a real-life application to show that cars really use FPGAs for this task,” he says.
Another talk on signal processing covers image enhancement in a TV set. Students build a digital filter that sharpens the image to make the picture look better.
There’s also a lecture on microelectronics. The students compare two different FPGAs to see the energy consumption of each. Winzker says FPGAs are manufactured with different technologies and those using the newer technology have a higher base level of energy consumption but a smaller increase with circuit activity, which makes computations more efficient.
GAINING IN POPULARITY
Before in-person classes at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg were cancelled due to the coronavirus, the remote lab was an optional component of Winzker’s FPGA course and students were asked then how they used it. Winzker says they gave a variety of reasons, including wanting to conduct more experiments on topics they liked and having the ability to repeat experiments they didn’t have time to finish during class. The remote lab also gave students who had family or work obligations the ability to finish their experiments when it was more convenient for them.
At that time, Winzker also asked them what they thought about a mandatory remote lab. More than half responded that some in-person labs could be replaced by remote labs.
“Apparently students are happy with this learning setup,” Winzker says.
The lab has become so popular that an additional experiment was added, Winzker says. The next course with online meetings will be held in April 2021.
“We see this lab as a service to the scientific community,” Winzker says. “We benefit from open source projects and this is our contribution to it. We call this approach internationalization at home, and it is part of our university strategy for digital teaching.”
Kathy Pretz is editor in chief for The Institute, which covers all aspects of IEEE, its members, and the technology they're involved in. She has a bachelor's degree in applied communication from Rider University, in Lawrenceville, N.J., and holds a master's degree in corporate and public communication from Monmouth University, in West Long Branch, N.J.