Bringing Lab Courses to Remote Learning Students with Simulation Applications

At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, one professor and his students designed 15 simulation applications for use in engineering and lab courses around the world.


Rachel Keatley
March 2021

The average human attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish. You may have heard this statistic before, but is it true? The thought-provoking insight appeared in hundreds of headlines circa 2015, but skeptics were not convinced. The statement is flawed: Many researchers agree that the human attention span is far too complex to reduce it to a span of time (Ref. 1).

Although a human's attention span may not actually be comparable to that of a goldfish, there is more digital content available than ever before, and the way people are focusing their attention is changing. In order to win over an audience and keep them entertained and engaged, it is important to tell a captivating story. For teachers, lecturers, and professors, it is especially important to hone this skill, as they often have 50 to 90 minutes in a class period to keep their students' eyes on them.

For many educators, holding the attention of their students became even more difficult in March 2020, when schools (and the world) shut down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, and many college classes moved online. At the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), Roman Voronov, an associate professor of chemical and biomedical engineering, designed 15 easy-to-use simulation applications to help professors at NJIT virtually teach fundamental engineering concepts and lab courses in an engaging way — no matter where the students are based.

Simulation in (and out of) the Classroom

Roman Voronov teaches courses on transport phenomena, heat and mass transfer, and techniques for process simulation. "In my heat and mass transfer course, I wanted to introduce my students to the COMSOL Multiphysics® software, a numerical simulation software, for a project. As soon as I did one problem in COMSOL®, everybody was like: 'It is so much easier to understand because visually I can actually see what is happening,'" said Voronov.

In addition, Voronov thinks it is important to introduce his students to advanced computational tools in general, as it gives them a unique advantage in the workforce. "It is not just for fun: Knowing how to use such technology ends up being a skill that they use after they graduate," said Voronov.

After seeing the positive impact simulation technology had on his students, Voronov wanted to make such tools more accessible to students and educators around the world — even before the concept of remote learning became a household term.

A Library of Simulation Apps for Students

Over the course of 2020, Voronov and his students worked together to create a library of several standalone, executable simulation apps. They created these easy-to-use apps with the Application Builder, a tool in COMSOL Multiphysics® for building intuitive user interfaces from models, where the app designer can decide which inputs and outputs to display. Each app was compiled into a standalone executable with the COMSOL Compiler™ deployment product, so that the apps could be easily distributed without having to manage additional software licenses. The yearlong project was funded by Computer Aids for Chemical Engineering (CACHE), a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of computational tools in chemical engineering.

The UI of a simulation app with a ribbon at the top with the problem statement PDF highlighted, a section for entering physical input parameters, a section showing a diagram of the drag coefficient of cylindrical bodies in axial flow, and a contour plot visualizing the pressure on an airplane in rainbow. Drag coefficient calculator app
Figure 1. An example of a simulation app designed by Voronov and his students, which calculates the drag coefficient around an airplane. The students can compare the app's results with a drag coefficient plot for rounded nose cylinders.

Originally, Voronov planned to design apps that professors could use as visual teaching aids when presenting fundamental engineering concepts. However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the nature of the project shifted. As courses completely moved online, NJIT professors teaching chemical engineering labs saw a need for apps that modeled experiments they had been performing in the lab up until then. Such apps would be used as a supplement to in-person lab work, and in some cases, a complete replacement.

After learning about what types of lab equipment the professors needed to model for their courses, Voronov and his students got to work bringing the simulation apps to life.

Exploring 3 Specialized Apps

Upon completion of the CACHE project, Roman Voronov and his students designed 15 simulation applications (Ref. 2). Several of the apps were designed to be used in specific engineering courses and labs at NJIT, but they may also be of interest to anyone studying fundamental chemical engineering processes.

When discussing the importance of simulation technology for lab courses, Voronov said: "In the lab, students can experiment and do what you ask them to do, but they do not always understand the physical processes that are occurring in the experiment, like they do with simulation."

The UI of a simulation app with a ribbon at the top containing menu items for the problem statement and documentation PDFs, reset, compute, and report; and sections for geometry inputs, fluid inputs, geometry outputs, and flow outputs; and a velocity plot showing the velocity magnitude in a 2D model. Orifice Flowmeter simulation app
Figure 2. An image of the Orifice Flowmeter app.

One app Voronov and his students created can be used to simulate compressible fluid flow in pipes. The Orifice Flowmeter app was specifically made for a chemical engineering lab at NJIT, which required students to perform a fluid flow experiment. In the experiment, students had to measure pressure drops at multiple locations in pipes of varying lengths. Using the app, modeled after the intended experiment, students can change the geometry of the pipes and make modifications to the fluid inputs to see how this affects the results. The app features a 3D velocity plot and a pressure plot so that students get a visualization of the physical phenomena occurring within the process.

The UI of a simulation app with a ribbon at the top containing menu items for documentation, plot geometry, plot mesh, compute, reset parameters, generate report, and export STL; input sections for geometry parameters and impeller settings; and a graphics window showing the mass concentration of an impeller design. Impeller Reactor simulation app
Figure 3. An image of the Impeller Reactor app. The app generates a CAD file for a 3D-printed impeller that the students can use in the lab to verify the simulation results.

Using the Impeller Reactor app, students can simulate the reaction between two species in a noncatalytic batch reactor with a rotating disc-shaped impeller. The app gives students insight into how changing the dimensions of the impeller can affect the molar concentration, mole and mass fraction, and mass concentrations in a batch reactor. (Batch reactors are often used to develop a variety of products in fine chemical, pharmaceutical, and food industries.) In addition, the app goes over how to model the impeller with a parametric sweep. "The idea is that the results will show the optimal impeller shape and size," said Voronov. Based on the simulation results, students can generate a CAD file for a 3D-printed impeller. Then, they can print out the impeller component and find out how it performs in reality.

Figure 4. Flow Around Car app, which simulates airflow passing over a car. At NJIT, students compare this app's results with existing literature. Flow Around Car simulation app
Figure 4. Flow Around Car app, which simulates airflow passing over a car. At NJIT, students compare this app's results with existing literature.

The Flow Around Car app, which Voronov designed for an NJIT course on fluid mechanics, models air flowing past a car. Understanding how fluid flows over immersed objects is important when designing packed beds, filtration devices, and heat exchangers, for example. Using the app, students can analyze gradient air distribution on a car in pressure plots and airflow passing over the car in velocity plots.

All of the apps mentioned here, and 12 others, can be accessed on the New Jersey Institute of Technology website (Ref. 3). (Running the apps requires a free installation of COMSOL Runtime™ on the app user's operating system.)

An Award-Winning App

Many of Roman Voronov's students from NJIT have gone on to use simulation in their careers — and even win awards. For example, Vasilios Halkias, a 2020 graduate of NJIT and one of Voronov's former students, developed an app that earned him the 2020 NAFEMS Student Award (Ref. 4). The prize-winning app simulates mass transfer, heat transfer, and reaction kinetics in a tubular flow reactor. Tubular flow reactors are important in the design of a variety of chemical-based applications.

Voronov believes the use of simulation applications will have a place inside the classroom, beyond virtual and hybrid learning. "I think using simulation apps truly gives students a fundamental understanding of what is happening inside the system they are testing. It gives them a different point of view and a lot of clarity."

References

  1. S. Maybin, “Busting the attention span myth,” BBC News, 2017. https://www.bbc.com/news/health-38896790
  2. "Development of Computational-Based Tools and Modules for Chemical Engineering Education," Computer Aids for Chemical Engineering, 2020. https://cache.org/computational-tools-development
  3. R. Voronov, "COMSOL Apps," New Jersey Institute of Technology, 2020. https://web.njit.edu/~rvoronov/comsol-apps/
  4. R. Tara, "Unable to Take Lab Course to Graduate, Student Turns to Simulation," Engineering.com, 2020. https://www.engineering.com/story/unable-to-take-lab-course-to-graduate-student-turns-to-simulation

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