Using virtual laboratories in control engineering education
Engineering is concerned with understanding and directing the materials and forces of nature for the use and convenience of humankind. Control engineering is concerned with the understanding and control of machines, processes and industrial automation systems to provide useful economic products for society. Control engineering is based on foundations of feedback theory and linear systems analysis. It is not limited to any engineering discipline but is equally applicable to aeronautical, chemical, mechanical, environmental, civil and electrical engineering (Dorf and Bishop 2001).
A control engineering educator has the challenge of communicating a wide variety of concepts, ideas and techniques, to provide students of the discipline with both a strong theoretical base and good practical ability. In addition, the educator increasingly has the responsibility of providing students with the fundamental skills that are required for life-long self-learning. Theoretical issues, which often involve mathematical and physical analysis, have tended to be taught in the classroom. Practical ability, which requires intuition and insight, has been traditionally conveyed through extensive laboratory work. However, time available for classroom and laboratory work has gradually been reduced, in response to pressure to reduce class contact hours and the increasing desire to facilitate student self-learning.
This paper reports on, reflects on, and evaluates the author’s use of virtual laboratories to increase student motivation, facilitate student self-learning and enhance theoretical understanding and practical ability. The author’s experience is that learning efficiency is significantly increased with the appropriate use of these laboratories, at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. Case studies of work carried out with the most interesting virtual laboratories are available from the author.