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LabVIEW NXG Accelerates Problem- and Project- Based Learning for MSc Students

 

Company: School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University
Author: Dr Richard James Lewis
NI Product(s) Used: LabVIEW NXG, myDAQ, Vision
Industry: Higher Education

 

Challenge

 

At Cardiff University School of Physics and Astronomy, we needed to build upon our award-winning, LabVIEW-centric, problem- and project-based learning (PBL and PjBL) MSc teaching to accommodate an expansion of student numbers and merging of our physics- and astrophysics-based degree schemes.

 

We wanted to continue to deliver best-in-class problem- and project-based learning while adapting to a larger and more diverse cohort.  To accomplish this, we implemented an innovative "applications-first" approach to teaching based around the LabVIEW NXG programming environment.

 

LabVIEW NXG provides significant enhancements and improvements over traditional LabVIEW that suggested a "start useful, stay useful" applications-first approach to LabVIEW teaching.  We have therefore completely overhauled our core PBL and PjBL core module to adopt this new model.

 

To our knowledge, this is the first such implementation of LabVIEW NXG in a higher education environment in the world.

 

michelson.PNGMichelson Interferometer as a LIGO Analogue: prototyped in LabVIEW NXG 2.1 within an MSc Physics micro-project in autumn 2018 and incorporated as part of a National Space Centre “Space Lates” event in January 2019.  Our student-lead micro-projects are designed to mesh with the University’s active research and outreach programmes.

 

Application Overview

 

Historically, MSc Physics (and related physics-based MSc) students have all been taught LabVIEW 2015 to support learning in a PBL and PjBL environment.  Combined with a unique research-group cohort structure and ethos, we empower students to take ownership of their learning.  This has been a recognised excellent and award-winning educational model.

 

Students spend 100 hours learning LabVIEW 2015 in a PBL laboratory environment, and in parallel undertake 100 hours of PjBL in student-lead micro-projects.  The entirety of this learning takes place within a core autumn semester module.

 

When considering the physics- and astrophysics-based MSc cohorts, two factors became apparent: (a.) it would be pedagogically difficult to re-implement the LabVIEW 2015 course in a relevant way for physics and astrophysics students simultaneously due to the very physics-centric nature of the old course, and (b.) the logistics of providing student-bespoke material becomes more difficult as the number of students in the cohort increases.  An additional constraint was the requirement to maintain our high level of student satisfaction.

 

In terms of implementation, the three-way choice was between: (i.) continuing to run the old course with minor adaptations, (ii.) switching to Python as the common language of instruction, or (iii.) adopting a radically different model with LabVIEW NXG.

 

Overall, LabVIEW NXG was chosen as the language of instruction since it allowed us to address both our pedagogical and logistical needs simultaneously.  An additional advantage was the ability to retain our DAQmx- and IMAQx-based equipment and experiments in-place with little in the way of re-writing required.

Our implementation was logistically much easier, as we were deploying one module compared to keeping comparable standards in two parallel but different modules. We were able to retain our courses' USPs while maintaining the MSc community feel, student feedback, and overall satisfaction.


structure.pngMigrating to LabVIEW NXG from LabVIEW 2015 afforded an opportunity to thoroughly review and enhance the structure of our course.  Since LabVIEW NXG allows easier access to data and a superior development environment, it was possible to put applications at the centre of the PBL component of the course from week 1 onwards.

Impact

 

Problem-Based Learning Impact

 

NXG allowed an "applications-first" syllabus structure, which dramatically increased teaching and learning efficiency.

 

We implemented an "everything in the project" approach to the generation of learning materials.  Example VIs, applications, supplementary material and even the assessment scripts were all contained within a session's NXG project.  Leveraging NXG's friendly UI based on a single tabbed window, we have essentially eliminated the small "micro pauses" inherent to switching into / between / out of traditional LabVIEW materials.  Every contact session benefitted from an increase in fluency and reduction in "dead" time.

 

dragon_b.PNGThe user interface for LabVIEW NXG is much more logically arranged and intuitive compared to traditional LabVIEW.  There are far fewer pauses in the workflow when a student works within a single tabbed window as opposed to hunting through multiple open windows.

 

The ability to zoom NXG code made video capture more effective than traditional LabVIEW.  With NXG it was feasible to simultaneously project, stream, and capture NXG development within a contact session.  The quality of the NXG UI and vector-based G code meant that videos had a consistent polish throughout.  Students could review videos during contact sessions, empowering them to solve problems by themselves and reducing supervisory load.

 

1.1.2b.PNGThe zoom function in LabVIEW NXG is a killer feature on the Diagram, allowing simple and effective removal of visual clutter during contact sessions.  It is particularly useful when capturing the session videos, resulting in much higher-quality and easier to follow video resources.

 

Project-Based Learning Impact

 

NXG had a transformative effect on the efficiency and depth of the NXG-based micro-projects. Students made use of their NXG skills in the PjBL component of the course much earlier (week 1) than with traditional LabVIEW (week 4).

 

NXG is intuitive to use; students explored the language during micro-projects to greater depth than in previous years.  Students found required nodes, examples, or other resources efficiently and with less supervisor input.  One micro-project group ported an application from LabVIEW 2015 without having being shown how to do it.

 

Our NXG-based micro-projects progressed faster and further than previous years; image analysis projects with Vision were particularly accelerated.  The "Cloud Chamber 3D Track Reconstruction" group accomplished in three weeks what had taken a previous group an entire semester using traditional LabVIEW.


student_pipeline.pngCloud Chamber 3D Track Reconstruction: cloud chamber track identification and capture in LabVIEW NXG 2.1 for an MSc Physics micro-project.  The data acquisition and analysis pipelines were rapidly developed by the project students using the Vision toolkit.

 

What's Next?

 

  • The zoom feature suggested a number of changes to the way in which we teach NXG. Students naturally zoomed in and out of sections of large Diagrams to remove visual clutter, for example.  We are reworking a number of our NXG projects to explicitly take advantage of this.
  • We will expand the number of micro-projects based on NXG to include more sophisticated set-ups, thereby bringing the micro-projects ever closer to the experience of a full research laboratory.
  • A micro-project formed the basis of a 2019 National Space Centre “Space Lates” outreach exhibit.  Our mutually beneficial and high-impact overlap between outreach and teaching will be expanded.
  • We intend to leverage WebVIs and related technologies to make elements of our course accessible on-line, thereby widening access and participation.
  • As early adopters of NXG 2.1, we experienced some small bugs which NI have squished for the NXG 3.0 release. We are currently evaluating NXG 3.0 with a view to utilising it for next academic year.

 

Application Concept Notes

 

We did not take lightly the decision to thoroughly revise an established and effective LabVIEW-based course on a core MSc module.  The primary difference between the old and new course structure is the movement from a traditional programming-concepts-first syllabus to an applications-first, programming-concepts-in-parallel model.

 

Why not implement this structure with traditional LabVIEW?

 

It is possible that this could be done, but the advantage of using NXG instead is that NXG is designed from the ground-up to prioritise access to data and to get equipment working as soon as it is plugged in.  This design choice, together with the zoom feature (which utterly transforms how an instructor presents) and superior and more consistent NXG UI made it a more efficient choice.

 

There are fewer bottlenecks with NXG on the road from basic applications through code drag-and-drop, to mastery of the language.  Given that our module is 11 weeks in length, every extra efficiency counts.

 

Attachments

 

  • Lewis, R., "Unifying MSc Physics and MSc Astrophysics Problem-Based Learning with LabVIEW NXG: A Critical Review", NI Academic User Forum Presentation, 2019
  • Lewis, R., "Transitioning MSc Physics Teaching to LabVIEW NXG 2.0: From Drills to DAQ-First", NI Academic User Forum Presentation, 2018
  • Lewis, R., "LabVIEW as a Common Language - Resolving the Community-Building : Skill-Embedded Tension in Taught Master’s Learning", NI Week Presentation, 2017
  • Lewis, R., "MSc Physics Students Take Ownership of Their Learning With LabVIEW", Engineering Impact Awards Case Study (Winner of 2016 European EIA, Education Category), 2016

Author Contact Details

 

Dr Richard Lewis CPhys MInstP FHEA

Director of Postgraduate Studies
School of Physics and Astronomy
Cardiff University

 

Tel: +44(0)29 2087 5433
Web: http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/people/view/913813-lewis-richard
Email: LewisR54@cardiff.ac.uk

 

Cardiff University is a registered charity no. 1136855      

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