Project Goals: In this project at the University of Vermont (UVM), we have integrated the use of Tablet PCs in learning environments where engineering students collaborate most frequently: specifically, in laboratories. Our goal was to ascertain how mobile, pen-based computing can enhance both individual and team learning in both formal laboratory and design courses. We viewed the use of Tablets for this work (as opposed to laptops) to be of benefit due to the heavy use of graphics and equations in engineering, entry of which is cumbersome at best with a keyboard and/or mouse.
Project Outcomes: Since Fall 2004, Tablets have been implemented in three different settings. In the first implementation, students in a senior-level electrical engineering (EE) lab course were loaned Tablets for use in and out of class. Students performed their experiments at times convenient to their schedule and as such there was no real-time oversight to ensure the labs were being performed correctly. This problem was addressed, in part, by students using Tablets to capture data and observations which they emailed to the instructor upon completion of the experiment. By quickly reviewing these in-lab notes, the instructor was able to ascertain whether the experiments had been performed correctly and whether the fundamental concepts were understood. To enable this methodology, lab procedures were provided as a Journal document embedded with images of sample results and other multimedia in which the students also recorded their findings using pen-based entry.
In the second implementation, Tablets were placed in the electronics laboratory used by all sophomore and junior EE students. In this study, we were evaluating whether using Tablets would improve in-lab note taking. Our premise was that since notes taken in Journal are available to cut and paste into a formal report, students would do a better job creating an electronic notebook than they currently do with paper versions and that this would be reflected in overall student learning.
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In the final implementation, Tablets were used to facilitate a freshman engineering design course for EE and mechanical engineering (ME) students. Students used Tablets under direction for various tasks including project brainstorming, CAD design, data collection and analysis, and technical communications. Lab procedures were restructured as Tablet-based presentations (vs. documents) with embedded detailed photographs (vs. figures and description), Internet links, etc. to better guide the students through procedures. Students also worked in teams on interdisciplinary design projects and continued to use Tablets for similar tasks but in a non-directed manner.
Student Learning and Key Findings: In our first implementation, we view the creation of informal lab sheets that are emailed to the instructor as being very successful in ensuring that students had performed their experiments correctly. Having this document in electronic form reduced the feedback time and thus enabled student to complete their formal write-ups in a timely and more effective fashion. We found these students used the loaned Tablets for note taking in all their courses and especially appreciated the ability to annotate documents and search text. In the second implementation, we have found that grading electronic notebooks is less disruptive than physically collecting, marking up and returning a bound version.
For the third implementation, we found that students in the freshman design course readily accepted and took full advantage of the mobility enabled by Tablets. For example, as part of their design projects some of the team members were responsible for CAD drawings which were to be submitted for rapid prototyping fabrication. We were able to hold ad-hoc help sessions by clustering students with their Tablets and working CAD drawing. We also observed student teams working in clusters where one student was developing project action items in Journal, another student was working in CAD, another searched online for parts and another was building a circuit. The ability for students to collocate while working on different tasks improved the communication between students and the overall effectiveness of their collaboration.