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Transforming Physics Students into Modern Practical Scientists with Hands-on, Experiential Learning

"LabVIEW has become a standard-issue tool at the university, and is also becoming a widely used tool outside of academia, finding a use in a great variety of industries."

- Gary Boorman, Royal Holloway, University of London

The Challenge:

Making practical laboratory-based learning of undergraduate-level physics more relevant and engaging to students over the course of their careers, whether they move into further study, research, or industry.

The Solution:

Revolutionising the teaching methods within the Department of Physics at the Royal Holloway, University of London by formalizing and advancing the teaching of LabVIEW software to both undergraduates and postgraduates. The university set up a LabVIEW Academy to help students gain industry-relevant qualifications and experience in addition to their degree.

An Introduction to Physics at Royal Holloway, University of London

The Department of Physics at Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL) has internationally renowned research groups in low-temperature physics, condensed matter, nanotechnology, particle physics, and accelerator diagnostics.

 

All research groups in the department use LabVIEW to some extent for data acquisition, monitoring, and control. Several groups also use NI hardware platforms such as PXI, as well as specialised equipment from other vendors. Many of these third-party devices are supplied with LabVIEW drivers. The accelerator group even develops LabVIEW code that is used by accelerator laboratories around the world, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland, the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY) in Germany, and the High Energy Accelerator Research Organization (KEK) in Japan. In addition, the low-temperature group has developed custom LabVIEW drivers for some of their apparatus designed in-house.

 

 

 

A few of the department’s research groups have used LabVIEW for 15 years, and the department is currently home to several Certified LabVIEW Associate Developers (CLADs) and one Certified LabVIEW Architect (CLA). Several people are planning to achieve Certified LabVIEW Developer (CLD) level.

 

In short, LabVIEW has become a standard-issue tool at the university, and is also becoming a widely used tool outside of academia, finding a use in a great variety of industries, including automotive, control, green engineering, construction, bio-engineering, aerospace and defence, manufacturing and automated test, and scientific research.

 

With the pace of discoveries in the scientific community, teachers are challenged to keep up with new ideas and principles. Equally, teachers find it challenging to teach students the techniques and tools they will actually be using in industry or when running experiments in a research environment. All of this needs to be done in a way that captures the students’ enthusiasm and interest to ensure they are motivated and engaged in their courses.

 

If educators don’t take care, students may find themselves leaving university without the skills required for their new careers and unable to work as modern practical scientists.

 

Over recent years, we have been integrating LabVIEW into some of our undergraduate physics experiments. A few years ago, we began to teach second-year students LabVIEW on a basic level in an effort to explain how DAQ systems work and how to develop an automated experiment. In the third year, students were then expected to use LabVIEW in their final-year projects. Students found the second-year course beneficial but wanted to be taught to a more proficient level to give them the ability to deliver more effective third-year projects.

 

In the summer of 2013, we decided to formalize and extend the teaching of LabVIEW, and create a LabVIEW Academy.

 

Teaching LabVIEW in the Physics Department

Twenty years ago, no one thought we would be teaching data acquisition to undergraduates, preferring more traditional techniques where data is taken down manually and post-processed using external tools. Around 10 years ago, RHUL had still demonstrated to undergraduates only a single experiment that used a basic PC-based DAQ card to gather data. Unfortunately, this didn’t emphasise the possibilities of data acquisition and did nothing to teach students how to program a DAQ device.

 

We began to believe that some teaching of modern DAQ methods would be beneficial, so we acquired third-party low-cost DAQ cards, which were used in experiments with deployed executable VIs. These acquired data, sent it to a display, and saved to a file for later analysis in Microsoft Excel. We found the third-party DAQ cards sometimes hard to work with, and the deployed nature of the executables meant that the process of data acquisition remained fairly mysterious to students.

 

Between 2009 and 2012, we provided second-year undergraduate students with a simple introduction to LabVIEW over nine hours of teaching. Student feedback consistently reported that students felt the course was rushed. The vast majority of students never got to develop LabVIEW programs again until almost a year later for a final-year project, by which time most had forgotten all they had learned. We realised that this introduction to LabVIEW was insufficient, and at the wrong time in a student’s learning career.

 

A separate LabVIEW and DAQ course for postgraduate students and research staff also ran before 2013. This course had a total of 24 hours of teaching, was much more structured, and the students could confidently build programs for their projects by the end of it. The department’s CLA developed the material for this course over several years. The feedback from postgraduate students for this version of the course was much more positive, and the content was felt to be useful and relevant. We used this course as the basis of the teaching resources developed for the LabVIEW Academy.

 

 

 

In the summer of 2013, we decided to shake up the undergraduate teaching of LabVIEW to make it more engaging and relevant to students, in the hope of improving their retention of the key concepts and techniques. We contacted NI and, with the help of the Academic Team, particularly the local NI academic field engineer, extended the LabVIEW teaching material we previously used to bring it up to a sufficient standard for use in a LabVIEW Academy.

 

We decided to move the undergraduate teaching of LabVIEW to the start of the third year, when it would be used immediately by students undertaking final year BSc projects, as well as MSci students who would be expected to develop VIs during teaching laboratory experiments. Postgraduate students were also taught in the course, which counted towards their training requirements.

 

We bought 12 myDAQ devices, which we found were well suited to final-year projects due to their flexibility and ease of use. We designed a custom I/O card (Figure 1) for the academy course project that all students must complete, to build a pedestrian crossing traffic light controller. The card also has the hardware needed for the extended LabVIEW course, which students who complete the first module can then opt to undertake. This consists of further teaching and then developing a temperature controller project using the hardware on the custom I/O card. Students in the extended course can take myDAQ and the custom I/O cards out of the teaching laboratory to program outside of scheduled lab time. Students particularly liked myDAQ because it was easy to use, portable, and tough. Those who completed the extended course took the CLAD exam in January 2014, with a pass rate of 55 percent.

 

 

 

With the new teaching structure, undergraduate students can appreciate the use of DAQ cards in modern physics experiments. They can now get hands on with LabVIEW straight after learning about it, and are left able to write code from scratch. Our postgraduate students now take their LabVIEW teaching alongside the undergraduates, which means we have standardised our teaching methods.

 

Student Feedback

The first run of the LabVIEW Academy was well received by students and staff. Students liked myDAQ and thought that the I/O card was very useful in demonstrating a program could work as expected. There has been a noticeable increase in the number of students wanting to do a practical final-year project. The students welcomed the opportunity to take an industry-recognized qualification, CLAD. Students now feel that the departmental LabVIEW teaching is the “right amount at the right time”. Several students have summer internships, either in our department or in industry, where they are using their new LabVIEW skills. Two students working over the summer in a large physics research institute said that “pretty much every lab here is using LabVIEW” and recognised that “having LabVIEW skills would put students at a big advantage”. Some students have even taken initiative to create LabVIEW programs in their spare time.

 

Conclusion

The department is continuing to invest in the LabVIEW Academy and has recently purchased additional myDAQ devices and I/O cards for future semesters. This along with the student install option in our site licence gives each student the ability to experiment with hardware at home, which reduces the reliance on our labs, gives students more time for course work and their own personal coding projects, and reduces the burden of supervising lab time for the academic staff. With the combination of myDAQ, the custom I/O card, and LabVIEW, we can teach using hardware that is similar in specification to some of that found in research labs. Feedback suggests that teaching LabVIEW to a relevant and useful level helps students understand how modern physics experiments work and that in turn makes them more employable.     

 

Author Information:

Gary Boorman
Royal Holloway, University of London
Egham
Surrey TW20 0EX
United Kingdom
g.boorman@rhul.ac.uk

Figure 1. Royal Holloway
Figure 2. Academy Opening
Figure 3. Custom myDAQ I/O Card.