Adapting to COVID-19 Challenges: ECE Successfully Moves Laboratories Online

Laboratory and hands-on experiments are important components of electrical and computer engineering education, so when the George Washington University decided to move fall courses online as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) faced a challenge. How could we best prepare for online laboratory and hands-on experiments?

As engineers we are used to encountering obstacles and challenges in research, and to finding solutions by research, persistence, and perseverance. So, we took the same approach to this challenge.

We quickly learned that multiple platforms for online laboratories were available:  “remote labs” whose special equipment is controlled through the Internet, “virtual labs” that use computer simulations, and “personal labs” that require portable devices. 

After studying all the options and talking to colleagues in industry and at other universities, we quickly understood that the best option for obtaining hands-on electrical and computer engineering experience at home is the personal labs platform. Thanks to recent innovations in portable and compact laboratory devices, the personal labs platform takes in the classroom laboratory and transforms it to an at-home experience. 


lab device


One such compact and portable product is Analog Discovery 2 (AD2).  Considering all the issues, the enormity of the project, and the restricted timeline, our goal initially looked unattainable: the laboratory manuals had to be completely rewritten for use of the new equipment, and new tools and kits had to be identified, tested, bought in large quantity, sorted, packaged and shipped to students—beyond that, it looked as if it was not going to be possible to get the AD2 equipment needed for the personal labs platform before the start of the semester, due to the high demand for it and to slow production. 

But we persisted and were able to resolve all the issues. After contacting the AD2 manufacturing company, we received confirmation that the delivery before the semester was guaranteed. Laboratory manuals were all rewritten with clear and easy to follow instructions for each experiment and project. High quality videos were made for each experiment to help students who may not be able to attend the laboratory. And an internet portal similar to e-commerce companies’ portals was designed, so students can remotely enter an order for the equipment they need for their courses and provide shipping and other needed information. 


ahmadi and student


After researching and testing the necessary new tools, we bought them and subsequently packaged and shipped them to our students. For the fall semester 10,000 resistors had to be carefully sorted one at a time into 80 packages. Similarly, many other small and large parts had to be sorted in order to create the packages based on students' needs. More than 380 packages were shipped to students in 15 classes for the fall and spring semesters. In addition to the AD2 equipment, packages contained a mixture of course laboratory part kits, laboratory tool kits, portable variable voltage AC/DC adapters, digital multimeters, Altera Boards DE2s, STK500 microcontrollers, and Basys3 FPGA. 

Beyond serving our own students, the department also served students who use these laboratories from the Biomedical Engineering department and the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering department. We shipped to most US states and across three continents to nearly 15 countries.

We also created a web-based ECE Virtual Lab, which provides easy access to software available on the ECE laboratory computers. Students who work in a team can also share live screens while using any software in the ECE Virtual Lab. Likewise, courses that use our clean room are able to use a virtual fabrication laboratory software called vFabLab to teach students about different tools available in fabrication.

Online labs table

As for our students, well, they have responded very positively to the changes:

“The GW ECE Department made it very convenient and easy to continue to learn online. I was provided with a tool kit and an AD2 which gave me everything to succeed in my labs. Instead of going to lab at a certain time of the week, I was able to start and complete all my experiments at my house whenever I wanted to.”   

—Matthew Beck (ECE undergraduate student)


“I know both myself and many others are forever thankful to the ECE department for making the lab an accessible and amazing learning experience even from home. The AD2 offered a multitude of perks seeing as it offered students access to a Wave Generator, Oscilloscope, as well as many other features in one compact device.“ 

— Maria Depasquale (ECE undergraduate student)