Author: Helen Wilkes

Redesigning labs for home learners in the Department of Materials

From building virtual electronic circuits online to test capacitor material performance to performing kitchen chemistry experiments measuring the flow of slime, Priya Saravanapavan from the Department of Materials explains how they have been adapting their teaching and lab work to remote delivery.


Engaging in the learning of Materials Science and Engineering at Imperial is a combination of understanding fundamental scientific principles and exploring engineering processes. Laboratory teaching is especially geared towards introducing and exploring principles students have encountered in lectures and applying these to different types of materials and a variety of engineering scenarios.

For example, one of the Year 1 summer term labs centred on solidifying students’ knowledge of capacitance and impedance—the foundations of which they learn in the Properties and Maths modules. In the original plan for the lab (before COVID-19), students would have used different dielectric materials (materials that can be polarised by applying an electric current) to make capacitors and measure their impedance and capacitance. When campus closed and the department had to convert all summer teaching to remote delivery, the priority was to deliver the fundamental learning objectives with as much hands-on learning as possible. Last week, Priya and her colleagues lead a practical for students using LTspice, a circuit simulator that allows the probing of an electrical circuit to study dielectric materials. Students used the software to model smooth and rough plate capacitors to look at how the capacitance/impedance is affected by pores of different size and geometry and, by using a materials selection database, to explore different dielectric materials.

A screen shot of LT spice software showing two electrical circuits and corresponding graphs
LTspice software in action

There were many challenges, mainly that components of the labs needed to be created, visualised and tested, supporting documents written, GTAs trained—all within the six-week period before summer term began. The teaching fellow team delivered 4 such labs with varying learning objectives and delivery modes—working with existing data, using simulations, using research data and carrying out kitchen chemistry experiments. This week students were initially going to explore the viscoelastic behaviours of different ‘slime’ compositions using a lab-based rheometer. Instead this week they are carried out a similar experiment, but instead of working in the lab, they will use ingredients they can find in their own kitchens.

MS teams screenshot showing students making slime in their home kitchens
Students making slime in their home kitchens

Feedback from students has been positive. Dewen Sun, first year academic rep, said, “The lab sessions we have had so far were successful in terms of achieving their teaching purpose. In general, the knowledge we are supposed to get from the labs has all been delivered successfully. There have been some issues: mainly GTAs being unfamiliar with the content of the lab and as students we’ve had to learn new software in a short period to complete the lab with some having to contend with access issues. Despite these problems, I do believe the current session has been effective in giving us the practical knowledge about the theories.”

As a department, we are happy with the outcome of these redesigned lab sessions. Jason Riley, Director of Undergraduate Studies, commented, “These laboratory classes have been carefully redesigned to deliver experiences that fully meet the module learning objectives with students, for example, building virtual electronic circuits, to investigate how material selection influences how a capacitor performs, or performing kitchen chemistry experiments to gain an intuitive understanding of the flow behaviour of different substances and link those to their applications. There are a few issues to iron out but, with time, we will be able to achieve better delivery. The successes and valuable lessons learned from these labs will help us incorporate some of the remote delivery aspects also to our campus-based labs for future years.”

To find out more about our undergraduate courses in Materials Science and Engineering, visit the Study website.

Sampling Sardinia on screen

Students in the third year of Imperial’s Geology course, one of the courses offered by the Department of Earth Sciences and Engineering, usually take part in a field trip to Sardinia. This year, course leaders translated the course to an online environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Virtual Sardinia is a new way of learning geology that is accessible to everyone. This virtual field trip lets students wander around and inspect 3D models of real rocks in the game engine Unity. It aims to provide as realistic an experience as possible, since geological field training is intended to prepare students for working in the real world. It nevertheless lets students do more than would be possible in real life, including hovering in the air with rocket packs and exploring abandoned mines. Above all it aims to be fun, because to a geologist, fieldwork is geology fun.

Virtual view of a rocky beach
The beautiful beach at Torre del Porticciollo

Emilia Dobb, a student on the course, tells us more:

Despite a lot of students feeling disappointed that they couldn’t travel to Sardinia on a field trip, I was very excited that the trip had become virtual. I have a disability which means I can’t normally attend fieldwork, so the experience has been extra special for me.

The virtual fieldwork has been amazing so far. Our lecturers have put so much effort into making the trip fun and immersive. They have developed an app for us to explore 3D outcrops, and accommodated them with high-resolution photographs, 3D images of rock samples and even incorporated a virtual microscope which we can use to analyse the rocks through thin sections.

The trip has consisted of taught fieldwork in the morning and self-fieldwork in the afternoon. This means students in Asia can participate in the taught sessions too and do their self-fieldwork in the morning before the next guided fieldwork starts. Along with the use of the app, Google Earth has supplemented our learning and allows for good field observations from photos that already exist on there. Ironically with virtual fieldwork we have been able to study some localities that we normally wouldn’t have been able to if we’d have actually gone to Sardinia, as they’re too dangerous on the roadside. Following the fieldwork at the different localities, Dr Matthew Genge then summarises the observations and interpretations we’ve made, just like he would in the field, but over Microsoft Teams instead.

This is the first fieldwork I have been able to attend since fresher’s week in my first year, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I feel like I’ve learnt so much, and it’s been great to be able to apply what I have learnt in lectures to real-life examples in the field – which is exactly what fieldwork is about, but normally I wouldn’t get that opportunity.

A virtual grassy hill top
The view from the top of a volcano
A virutal view of a dark mine shaft
Mapping the abandoned Argentiera silver mine.

The app has been pretty fun to navigate. We have an AI demonstrator for the fieldwork in the app called GeeDee (Geology demonstrator), who has quite the attitude. I’ve grown quite fond of her and find myself talking to her when she gets in my way or disappears out of view…this is what happens during lockdown! We can walk around the outcrop as we would in the field and can even drop a field notebook to get a sense of scale, and use a compass-clino for dip and dip direction measurements. There are glowing spots on the outcrop which give us more information, such as the photographs and 3D rock samples. So far, we’ve driven quads around huge quarries (which I tend to crash and get stuck!) and used a jet pack to fly above a volcano to look at its shape, as well as to fly back onto the clifftop when we’ve fallen off! We’ve encountered goats, snakes and sharks too!

I’d like to say a huge thank you to our lecturers for putting this incredible experience together for us all. They’ve really made the best of an unfortunate situation.

To find out more about our undergraduate courses in Earth Science and Engineering, visit the Study website.