Heat Flux Sensors Allow A Portable Lab Experience

Students can benefit from hands-on learning experiences, but these do not always have to involve working in a laboratory setting – it might mean that they take hardware with them into the field.

This has very much been the case with a group of mechanical engineering undergraduate students, who are now able to carry their laboratories in their backpacks. All thanks to the hard work and innovation of two faculty members who have taken a grant-inspired idea and turned it into a portable learning tool for their students.

In 2015, a pair of graduate students found themselves working with Tom Diller – a professor at Virginia Tech – on a National Science Foundation project. This project focused on developing a formulated method to manufacture heat flux sensors that were much less expensive than the ones sold at the time.

This led to the formation of FluxTeq (located in a lab at the Corporate Research Center); a company that was set up to commercialize this technology and bring it to wider audiences. More recently, Diller has begun utilizing these products in his classes; using them as part of a portable laboratory system, developed with the help of Al Wicks, an associate professor in mechanical engineering.

We’ve been working for the last couple of years on a way to provide students with more hands-on experiences… The concept is to allow students to have the capability of doing lab-type exercises without having a formal lab section.

Al Wicks, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering

There is an average of 400 undergraduate students currently studying mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech. As such, there wasn’t enough available lab time and capacity to sufficiently accommodate the students’ needs. Due to this, heat flux-related laboratories hadn’t been part of the curriculum course requirement for around 20 years.

Not only is the portable lab kit easily transportable (it is only slightly bigger than a deck of playing cards), but it gives students the opportunity to take heat flux measurements, therefore providing a broader and more rounded educational experience.

We literally built a data acquisition system based on a microcontroller attached to a heat flux gauge. There is a USB cable which can be plugged into a students’ laptop, and they can use this small, inexpensive system to make measurements. They are using state of the art research tools and being exposed to data acquisition on systems based on a microcontroller. That means they are starting to look at more sophisticated electronics and being introduced to ancillary activities that add to their educational experience. None of this was possible ten years ago.

Al Wicks, Associate Professor in Mechanical Engineering

As news of the kit spread, a group of around 75 students undertaking a Heat and Mass Transfer course received heat flux kits. These kits also included a Texas Instruments TI432 microcontroller (100 of these controllers were donated by Texas Instruments) with a TI ‘launch pad’ board that had been designed and built by ME graduate students. This allowed the sensor data to be measured and recorded.

The kit was well received but some students like Allison of Goochland - a junior in mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering - found it intimidating at first:

This has been a great way to slowly step into that realm of possibilities," Allison said. "We weren’t given this kit to simply be a tool; we were shown how it works and what it is meant to do, which is great because so often you are given something and told to do a task without ever knowing how or why.

A heat flux sensor can measure more than just temperature - it can measure the heat transfer between objects. Using the kit provided students can, for example, put their hand on a provided piece of metal and accurately measure the heat transferred from the body to that metal.

Undertaking this test with a different substrate (such as wood) would result in a very different heat transfer result because the heat transfer properties of the materials are different. The kit has a plethora of different uses and applications. For example, students are also able to directly measure heat transfer from their skin at various locations around the body, allowing them to calculate how many calories they are burning.

Wicks highlights the benefits that the kit brings to students’ educational experience:

Having the kits means students have to go out and do the work themselves with real hardware and analyze the data using industry-standard software. The depth at which they dive into the software is really a positive experience because it gives students some real-world application to the software they might not otherwise get until they were graduate students.

I’ve been on two co-op experiences, and the MatLab software is always present,” Allison said. “We are using the software with this heat flux kit to a much greater degree than I used it in those co-ops and it’s been an awesome opportunity to see how everything ties together in a very important way.

Both Wicks and Diller agree that they want to see students like Allison leave Virginia Tech as accomplished problem solvers.

As engineers, we are trained to use the tools available to solve problems and problems aren’t always defined. Students can’t escape – if they need to code, they will learn how to code and solve the problem; if they need to understand electronics, they’ll have to learn – not knowing isn’t an excuse, it’s an opportunity. The idea is that we are allowing the students to not be blocked by saying ‘I can’t do this,’ or ‘I don’t know how.’ They’ve had exposure to it now and that allows them to feel comfortable with the unknown and go off and explore.

Tom Diller, Professor at Virginia Tech

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