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Build an imager…from your living room

September 3, 2020

When Johns Hopkins University announced the transition to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic this past March, Web Stayman, associate professor of biomedical engineering, had just one week to transform his in-person, project-based Build an Imager course into a completely virtual, interactive experience.

During normal times, Build an Imager students work in groups to engage in hands-on experiments, using basic optical elements such as microscope lenses, optical tubes, and a scientific digital camera to build an imaging system from scratch. After learning imaging concepts and theory through group discussion, students construct imaging systems, program devices, take measurements, perform specific experiments, and analyze their results.

Because the hardware required for this course is bulky and available in limited quantities, shipping materials to the students was not an option for the transition to a virtual format. Instead, Stayman and Grace Gang, assistant research professor of biomedical engineering and co-instructor for this course, each brought home a microscope kit, and created a staging area with multiple cameras that they used to film themselves while working on their imaging setups.

“We kept a similar course format, beginning each class with a discussion, but instead of having the students build the imaging system themselves, the instructors acted as the hands for the students,” explained Stayman. “We would ask students what to do next, what each component does, how the experiments should be conducted, and how to interpret the results.”

Through the multi-camera setup, screen sharing, and real-time data streaming to the cloud, students were able to see the physical setup and adjustments, collaboratively program data acquisitions, and conduct data analysis. Stayman and Gang encouraged participation using Zoom polls to gain consensus on the next step in an experiment, Google forms for students to write code and provide quantitative analysis, and breakout rooms so students could work as a team and learn from each other. These tools allowed the students to determine the direction and outcome of their experiments, much as they would have if the course had continued in person.

“Many foundational classes are more lecture-based and theoretical, and we wanted to do all we could to maintain the very different nature of this project-based learning course,” said Gang. “This course is all about the in-person and hands-on experience, and it seemed like this was the best way to maintain the spirit of the class.”

To ensure a smooth learning experience throughout the transition to a virtual format, Stayman and Gang frequently asked for student feedback, both verbally and through anonymous polls. They plan to use what they learned to make the experience even better for the upcoming year. “We hope to get back to in-person learning in the spring, but we are prepared to continue to teach virtually if need be,” said Stayman.

For future online versions of Build an Imager, Stayman and Gang plan to improve the virtual classroom experience by creating a common environment in which groups can collaborate for all aspects of the course. For example, students could use an online, open-source notebook as a centralized hub for storing documents, writing code, generating results, and submitting work. Stayman and Gang are also looking into having microscopes accessible through the internet that would allow students to program and control them remotely 24 hours a day. “This would elevate the student experience by providing additional time to access hardware outside of class hours, regardless of time zones,” said Stayman.