Terence C. Karselis, Assistant Professor, Assistant Chair, and Director of Graduate Studies, Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, Virginia Commonwealth University
Teaching Instrumentation in the 21st Century with LabVIEW
Terence C. Karselis
firstname.lastname@example.org Teaching analytical instrumentation in an allied health program, such as clinical laboratory science, is an expensive under-taking. For the last 25 years the author has taught electronics/instrumentation to clinical laboratory science students (formerly known as medical technologists).
Prior to entering the clinical setting (a hospital laboratory) students are exposed to the basic principles and operating procedures for a number of typical instruments in simulated clinical laboratories. The curriculum includes an instrumentation course, in which each student gains expertise in using instrumentation that ranges from spectrophotometers and pH meters to gas chromatographs. This traditional approach requires that the inventory of a typical instrumentation teaching laboratory consists of a whole specrtrum of instrumentation.
A typical inventory for teaching a class of 20 students might consist of 10 spectrophotometers and pH meters, along with only one or two of the more expensive devices, such as atomic absorption instruments or gas chromatographs. When the cost of a teaching instrument was in the hundreds of dollars and equipment budgets were unlimited, this approach was acceptable. Needless to say, those days are gone forever. A typical, fully automated clinical chemistry analyzer falls far beyond the scope of any academic department's equipment budget. These facts, combined with the limited access a student has to clinical instrumentation within a hospital, make teaching the fundamentals of laboratory instrumentation a major problem. As instruments become increasingly more complex and their purchase price rises, the goal of teaching instrumentation economically continues to elude the educator.
At the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University (MCV-VCU), we are using LabVIEW in a project called Instru-Mentor. Using Instru-Mentor, each student has access to a complete instrumentation laboratory at less than the cost of a single commercial instrument; plus, unlike dedicated analytical instruments, we can use the computers for many other functions. LabVIEW provides a cost-effective solution that would make any accountant smile.
The Instru-Mentor System
The Instru-Mentor project, which is currently undergoing field test by students in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at MCV-VCU, is designed to teach students the correct operating procedures and principles for a given class of instruments. Planned modules for the project include Phase I - Photometry, Phase II - Electrochemistry, and Phase III - Particle Counters.
Each module is designed using a common framework that includes an introductory screen followed by a control familiarization virtual instrument (VI). For example, in the photometry module, students select either an atomic absorption spectrophotometer or a conventional spectrophotometer. The screen then lists learning objectives of the module, followed by a screen that lists instrument-specific operating instructions. The student then views a digitized image of the instrument with each control or display labeled. The next screen provides the user with a seven-item Select Operation menu.
By selecting "block diagram", students obtain descriptions of the device parts. Prior to choosing to "perform an assay", students must "choose an analyte" and at this time obtain the correct wavelength to perform the assay. If students set the wavelength incorrectly, the data they obtain will be incorrect; just as in the real world. For the next selection, "wavelength calibration", we designed a Wavelength Calibration subVI. We also created a subVI to provide students with experience in simple "troubleshooting". The final submodule is a short, 10 question, true/false quiz on device theory, operation, and parts. After completing all sections, the student selects "end demo" to exit the program.
Flexible LabVIEW VIs
Properly designed, LabVIEW VIs have the potential of becoming an important tool not only for clinical laboratory science education, but virtually any allied health educator involved in teaching instrumentation.
These VIs, which provide a degree of teaching flexibility that would be hard if not impossible to achieve without unlimited funds, provide students with a resource that they can repeatedly use to ensure they are knowledgeable about a given device. VIs are easily modified and updated to keep pace with changes in the field and can also meet the needs of any level of instrumentation education - from introductory to advanced.
Future applications include adapting LabVIEW to instrumentation for physical therapy students. Modifications in VIs are designed to include troubleshooting, so that instruments "crash" as they would in the real world. Problems, such as power failures and failed components, enable the students to get experience in using and operating a real device.
Applications outside a formal education program might include developing training for using bedside-test instruments as well as orientation programs to train new laboratory personnel instrument operation and maintenance.
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UniServe Science News Volume 7 July 1997
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