Professor Reengineers MATLAB Course Overnight in Response to COVID

Online and Interactive Tools Simplified the Move to Remote Learning


On March 12, 2020, all in-person classes at the University of California, Davis went online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, Dr. Andre Knoesen, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis, was forced to convert his Engineering Problem Solving course, which uses MATLAB®, into a remote learning experience. Gone was his ability to read the faces and body language of his students to intuit if they were engaged. Gone were the in-person labs meant for small groups to address specific questions and hands-on projects. Gone was the community environment so crucial to students’ learning, as was the structure to reduce cheating.

“If it wasn’t for the zyBook and the interactive MATLAB structure that was already in place, our transition would have been much more difficult. I would say almost impossible.”

Dr. Andre Knoesen, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis

“It was very frustrating,” says Knoesen.

Knoesen also wondered if the transition to online learning would slow the momentum of his class. “That was my biggest concern, that we wouldn’t be able to cover all of the content and topics,” he says.

But Knoesen had a major advantage with this particular class: He’d already been using the Introduction to MATLAB zyBook as part of his curriculum. This interactive, electronic text, which was co-authored by Knoesen and UC Davis colleague Rajeevan Amirtharajah in 2012 and is updated annually, teaches incrementally. Students read text and then test their knowledge by responding to questions and writing code. Along the way, they receive tips and feedback. Because MATLAB Grader is integrated into the zyBook, students are automatically graded on their work.

Professor Knoesen teaching Introduction to Problem Solving over Zoom. Image credit: UC Davis

Knoesen then pulled additional MATLAB features into the coursework, including MATLAB live scripts, MATLAB Mobile™, and ThingSpeak™, to create a rich online experience. “If it wasn’t for the zyBook and the interactive MATLAB structure that was already in place, our transition would have been much more difficult. I would say almost impossible,” says Knoesen.

The Old Normal

At the start of the university’s winter 2020 quarter, college life was humming along normally. Each morning Knoesen would park his car near Kemper Hall and then walk about 15 minutes across campus—under old, majestic oaks and past the large green quad—to Young Hall, where he gave his lectures to a class of about 200 students. A damp fog permeated the air, typical for winter until the sun crested the horizon around 8:30 a.m.

Early in the quarter, he noticed a group of enthusiastic students, diverse in gender, race, and major, who sat together at the front of the lecture hall. They engaged in friendly banter and seemed to draw other students into their cluster. Knoesen liked to chat with them before class and looked to them during lectures to get a sense of whether students were engaged and understanding the content. “I did not fully realize how essential this feedback was, particularly in a large class, until I had to teach the same course remotely,” he says.

For his course, he relied on the MATLAB zyBook. Students accessed the interactive book from their computer on their own time. They read sections that focused on topics such as variables, scripts, strings, or arrays and then, in a “Participation Activity,” answered questions. The book also graded a “Challenge Activity,” where they wrote MATLAB code directly into the web browser.

In class, Knoesen typically presented concepts using Microsoft® PowerPoint®. He also used a technology called iClicker, a remote control–like device (and a phone app) that enabled students to respond anonymously to questions during lecture. If their answers indicated they weren’t catching on, he would adjust his instruction. Thankfully, he was able to keep the iClicker technology in the remote environment. But in February, as COVID-19 cases began to rise, he decided to replace a handful of remaining PowerPoint instructions with MATLAB live scripts—interactive documents that enabled him to write and execute code, along with text, equations, and images, in a single environment called Live Editor. He thought it might come in handy should the class have to go online.

“Little did we know that it would be a ‘cold turkey’ switch,” he says.

The Introduction to MATLAB zyBook, by Andre Knoesen and Rajeevan Amirtharajah.

Campus Closes

It happened almost overnight. In mid-March, the week before final exams, the campus closed. Even though Knoesen had three boxes of printed tests in his office, he couldn’t use them. He and the rest of the UC Davis faculty scrambled to administer final exams remotely. It raised the issue of fairness, says Knoesen. Taking a test in a classroom, under the watchful eye of a professor or teaching assistant, made it more difficult for students to cheat—a serious issue all universities contend with. But there remained no good way to proctor students remotely. And because midterm and final exams make up 50% of a student’s grade, the stakes were high. Knoesen could see he was going to have to make some adjustments come spring.

“The MATLAB course was beneficial because I immediately had a use for it, to apply it to a project in real life.”

Mostafa Ibrahim, electrical engineering student at UC Davis

“That experience was an eye-opener,” says Knoesen.

His solution was to put more emphasis on teaching and less on large-stakes assessments such as midterm and a final. He gave the students a series of small assessments throughout the course with an open-ended project at the end of the semester. He converted his PowerPoint slides to MATLAB live scripts and presented them during an online class held over Zoom. “Having notes and coding integrated into one document was very helpful,” he says. Students still had access to the iClicker app in the remote learning environment and could respond to questions Knoesen would pose online to gauge their comprehension.

He still missed the face-to-face interactions, though. “Such informal in-person interactions, which are so natural and taken for granted, are essential in forming social connections amongst the students taking the course, particularly a large enrollment class,” he says. “It was also hard for me to get a sense of how to adapt the lectures based on the understanding of the participants.”

Remarkably, Knoesen got through all of the material. For the final assignment, the students were asked to complete a group project using MATLAB. Some students built card games, including Crazy 8 and Slap Jack, and dice games like Farkle and Yahtzee using MATLAB Drive™ and ThingSpeak, which enables users to collect and share data. Other teams used MATLAB Mobile to capture sensor data from a mobile phone to map and graph their movement wherever they are located.

Mostafa Ibrahim, now a sophomore in electrical engineering, and his team combined MATLAB Mobile and ThingSpeak to not only create maps and graphs of their movement, but also send a tweet when a user reached a particular walking speed or location. Although the project was just for fun, Ibrahim ended up applying what he learned to his work as a member of the UC Davis Formula Racing club, which designs, builds, and races high-performance electric vehicles. His teammates wanted to visualize sensor data from their car, and Ibrahim stepped up to do it. “The MATLAB course was beneficial because I immediately had a use for it, to apply it to a project in real life,” says Ibrahim.

MATLAB Final Project for the Engineering Problem Solving course: Crazy 8s. Image credit: Emily Frias-Contreras

Continuing Remote Learning

Knoesen says teaching remotely is still a work in progress. He thinks that although students met in-person twice per week under normal circumstances, meeting twice a week for live online sessions was too much. He thinks one synchronous, in-person class per week is plenty, supplemented with an asynchronous lecture period that relies on auto-graded Challenge Activities in zyBooks. “In the new edition of the book, there are additional problems that make this change easier,” he says.

“The most meaningful compliment I get is when students who completed the course stop me years later to let me know useful the programming techniques learned in the class were in their subsequent studies or careers.”

Dr. Andre Knoesen, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UC Davis

The good news is that analysis from the spring quarter showed that less than 5% of the MATLAB class might have cheated. Knoesen thinks that having many small assessments spread over the quarter, while also eliminating midterm and final exams, will further lower the possibility of cheating and reduce student anxiety.

Knoesen says it’s a privilege to guide a student who has little or no programming background on a journey that instills self-confidence to write relatively sophisticated computer applications. The MATLAB environment exposes students to the essentials of programming in just 10 weeks. Once the student realizes that the basic elements of data capture, manipulation, visualization, and interaction are universal and independent of the area of application, they start applying their programming skills in creative ways in their area of interest.  

Young Hall, UC Davis. Image credit: UC Davis

“The most meaningful compliment I get is when students who completed the course stop me years later to let me know useful the programming techniques learned in the class were in their subsequent studies or careers,” says Knoesen.

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