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Morgan State Strives to Make Engineering Education More Accessible

MSU pilots an accredited on-line electrical & computer engineering degree program

Dr. Yacob Astatke grew up in Ethiopia on the east coast of Africa. Without sufficient local access to a technical education, he moved to America to complete his engineering degrees. Now, as the Associate Chair of the ECE department at Morgan State University (MSU), he has a vision to make electrical engineering education available to students who, like himself years ago, wouldn’t otherwise have access to accredited programs. Such an effort would benefit students who lack the ability to travel for their education and those in remote geographies, including young men and women in third world countries such as Dr. Astatke’s native Ethiopia.

“I travel to Africa every year to better understand the needs of students and the local economy,” states Dr. Astatke. “I find that there are many students who would like to attend US-based universities for their education, but many can’t get a visa. Others may not have the resources to move to the US to attend school. Our goal at Morgan State University is to make our ECE program accessible to a broad range of off-site students.”

On-line labs are key to program success

While on-line engineering lectures are relatively common and easy to deliver, it’s the remote lab component which has historically been the greatest challenge. Some schools have used techniques such as lab simulations, but these do not compare to a true hands-on experience. Dr. Astatke’s novel approach provides his on-line students with the same learning experience as those that attend his on-campus labs. “I have always been interested in new technology to make engineering fun and interactive for students,” said Dr. Astatke.

Morgan State University’s on-line laboratories are made possible with the “Mobile Studio I/O Board” developed at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) and the new Keysight X-Series Oscilloscopes with an integrated Function Generator. 

The Mobile Studio I/O Board is a small, inexpensive hardware platform for use in a home, classroom or remote environment. When connected to a PC (via USB), it provides functionality similar to that of standard laboratory equipment (oscilloscope, function generator, power supplies, voltmeters, etc.).

The other key technology is the new line of Keysight InfiniiVision oscilloscopes, which have optional local area network (LAN) connection modules that allow students to control every feature of the oscilloscopes remotely using a web browser on their personal computer. They use a virtual front panel that looks and operates the same way as the real front panel of the scopes, with the same associated keys and knobs. In this way, students who are conducting ECE lab experiments on-line will have access to the same type of equipment that is used by the students enrolled in the face-to-face laboratory courses.

Pilot program

In the Fall 2012 semester, Morgan State University will pilot their remote access curriculum with 15 students, each enrolled in the University’s accredited on-line electrical and computer engineering program. MSU’s on-line students will do everything their on-campus counterparts do, including attending engineering labs, building circuits, testing the results, and demonstrating their work to MSU instructors. After successfully completing the program, the on-line students will receive a fully accredited degree and diploma. This will allow them to confidently take jobs in industry with the practical experience they’ve gained with the on-line labs.

One advantage of the on-line approach is its incorporation of social networks, with which today’s students are comfortable and experienced. “In these days of social media, the on-line experience allows for close collaboration with other students, even those from different geographies. This approach drives interactivity between the students and improves learning,” observes Dr. Craig Scott, Chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering department.

Partnership with Keysight Technologies

“Morgan State University has been using Keysight (and HP before being spun off) equipment for 25 years,” notes Dr. Scott. “MSU has always had an excellent working relationship with Keysight and their account team has been brilliant.”

Keysight has played an instrumental role in making Dr. Astatke’s vision a reality. He envisioned this on-line engineering lab capability after seeing a demonstration of the LAN option on the new Keysight InfiniiVision oscilloscopes at the 2011 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) Conference in Vancouver, Canada. “These state-of-the-art scopes can revolutionize engineering education in Africa and other third world regions,” exclaimed Dr. Astatke. “Agilent’s new generation of oscilloscopes are amazing. The students love them and now they don’t want to use the old scopes!”

The future of remote engineering education looks bright

There are challenges to deploying this technology worldwide. Some third world countries don’t have the infrastructure or the internet bandwidth to support a remote on-line program. However, these hurdles will be overcome with time, and that will ultimately allow students to attend US-based universities. The benefit will be immediate. “These students are likely to remain in their home countries after graduation and become a valuable asset to the local economy,” reflects Dr. Astatke.

The Morgan State University on-line engineering program will open many doors for students everywhere. Dr. Astatke looks forward to taking his program to African nations such as his homeland of Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and beyond. There seems little doubt that his work will positively impact the lives of many future engineering students and the nations they call home.

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