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Off Campus Engineering Students Get “Virtual” Access to NPS Labs

Professor Roberto Cristi in the the EC3400 Digital Signal Processing FPGA Lab.

A critical part of an education in engineering is the laboratory experience, especially at the graduate level. In fact, most of the courses in the Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department include laboratory hours involving various experiments in data analysis or hardware implementation, for example.

But for distance learning (DL) students, access to laboratories and equipment was clearly a challenge given the student’s separation from campus. That is until Professor Roberto Cristi engaged NPS’ Center for Design, Development and Distribution (CED3) during their 2009 call for course proposals.

Cristi’s proposal, “Feasibility Study for Distance Learning Hardware Laboratories for Power and Signal Processing Courses,” a collaboration between Dr. Giovanna Oriti and Prof. Alex Julian in the ECE Department and IT Specialist Dan Zulaica, tasked CED3 with providing remote access of laboratory equipment to nonresident students – a first at NPS.

“During the last few years we saw a considerable development of integrated software and hardware platforms based on well established software,” said Cristi. “The goal was to shorten the ‘distance’ between theory, simulation and implementation and give the student a clear picture of engineering development.

“The issue we addressed is how to extend the laboratory experience to non-resident students taking distance learning courses. Currently in the ECE department there are a number of courses with a sizable DL population. In particular Solid State Power Conversion [EC3150, EC4150] and Electric Machines [EC3130, EC4130] have well established laboratories based on state the art technology like the FPGAs (Field Programmable Gate Arrays),” Cristi added. “These courses have been offered as distance learning to remote sites with remote students either coming to NPS for the lab experience, or running experiments remotely with simulated data.”

The ECE department’s state of the art Power Electronics lab’s hardware is entirely controlled by a PC through an FPGA-based controller. In order to make these hardware laboratories available to DL students, CED3 was consulted to make the lab available over the Internet.

“CED3 worked closely with Roberto Cristi and Dan Zulaica to create an interactive Web portal where distance learning students would be able to remotely access, operate and program NPS resident state-of-the-art lab equipment, including the programmable FPGA, Oscilloscope, and Waveform Generator,” said Diane Jones, a Graphic Design Specialist in CED3’s Media Development department. “Through the Web portal, students are able to connect to the FPGA, download and test their programs, operate equipment, and view results on a real-time display of the actual NPS lab equipment. It’s an exciting project!”

“A vast range of courses in engineering have widely benefited from this research,” says Cristi. “The courses in the Power Option [EC3130, EC3150, EC4130, EC4150] were the first ones to adopt the methodologies.”

To see the virtual lab for yourself, visit the EC3400 Digital Signal Processing FPGA Lab.

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