How UCSC brought the Engineering lab home

BELS manager Russell Evans on adapting to remote learning

Even during a global pandemic, engineers need practical experience. Baskin Engineering Laboratory Support (BELS) created an international logistics operation to make sure UC Santa Cruz students did.

When the City of Santa Cruz mandated shelter in place, several hundred UC Santa Cruz engineers were suddenly left without their labs.

Lab time is a crucial part of becoming an engineer. Engineers need to learn how to work in groups on complex projects. They share ideas in an ad hoc language made of whiteboard scrawls, gestures and speech. They learn how to use specialized equipment and crank out projects while running up against seemingly impossible deadlines (or dashing back to the lab for last minute soldering tweak). 

How do you translate that to an online course? During the Spring quarter most classes went simulation-only. This wasn’t a long term solution.

As it became clear that the fall quarter would have to be spent online UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering Dean Alexander  Wolf enlisted a team of experts, including Baskin Engineering Laboratory Support manager Russell Evans to find a way for engineers to take the laboratory home with them.

Evans had been experimenting with a device built by Digilent called an Analog Discovery 2 before the pandemic. It connected via USB and was capable of replicating many common lab instruments such as an oscilloscope or a function generator. The device wasn’t quite as sensitive as traditional lab equipment but was good enough for many uses, and allowed students to do lab work at home. 

When the pandemic struck, Evans tried to order as many of the devices as possible.

“There was a massive run on them,” Evans said. “I was watching the manufacturer’s site and saw the number of units drop from thousands available to almost none. We raced to get our purchase orders in. It was a mad scramble but it looks like everyone will be able to get one.”

Ordering the units was just the first step. Then they had to make sure the units got into the hands of students before the quarter began (and as safely as possible). This meant shipping equipment all over the world and tracking who had what. 

“We send them to students along with a mailing label so they can return them to us,” Evans said. “We’ve sent units to Indonesia, China, India, Sweden. Luckily BELS also runs receiving, so we work right next to campus mailing services. UPS were certainly surprised to see the enormous stacks of packages waiting for them.”

Approximately 80 percent of the deliveries went to the San Francisco Bay Area which meant UPS Ground was often next day delivery. About 90 percent of students were in the state of California. International shipments arrived swiftly, often before dispatches to the East Coast did. The only exception was China, where packages lingered in customs. 

There were a few advanced classes that needed more features than the Analog Discovery 2 could offer. ECE 171 Analog Electronics (Introduction to Semiconductor Devices) needed a power supply to work with. BELS’ solution was to create one from scratch. They worked with professors to design plans so that one of the first assignments in class was to create a power supply. 

In Professor Mark Akeson’s BME 22 class (the Foundations of Foundations of Design and Experimentation in Molecular Biology) BELS opted to try a different off-the-shelf solution: a remote biological testing lab called BentoLab. The class also needed soldering irons, which created another set of problems for lab services. 

“Soldering irons get hot!” Evans said. “After much intense discussion, the dean and assistant dean had me add an amendment to the Standard Operating Procedure agreement allowing soldering at home.” 

Baskin Engineering doesn’t use lead-based solder, but they still needed to make sure students were using irons with adequate ventilation, on an appropriately flat surface. Pets and younger siblings were another consideration. 

“You might understand that a soldering iron is hot, but does your baby brother?” Evans said. “And what about your cat?”

There are some instruments that can’t be mailed out to students (items simply too big, too expensive, sensitive or dangerous to mail), which might become a problem if restrictions continue beyond the Fall quarter. 

“We’re probably going to have to make some decisions about senior design projects,” Evans said. “They’re going to need higher-end testing and measurement equipment. I’m hoping we’ll be able to have a system where they’ll be able to come into a lab and schedule a time when maybe two or three students can come in at a time.”

There’s already one Engineering lab class operating on campus. Bioengineering Professor David Bernick’s class (one of only ten on-campus classes during the fall quarter) allows a few groups of students at a time to come in and use the equipment. Another option is to allow BELS workers to act as remote operators for student groups, an approach that a few senior projects used during the Spring quarter. 

No matter what happens, Evans is looking forward to seeing students on campus again.

“I hope everyone comes back soon!” He said. “It’s lonely up here on campus.”