VIRTUAL LABORATORIES TO SUPPORT LEARNING IN INTRODUCTORY AUTOMATIC CONTROL COURSES: THE UNIVERSITY OF EXTREMADURA PILOT EXPERIENCE
The fact that automatic control is an area of knowledge with significant mathematical content results, in many cases, difficult to understand and assimilate for most students in introductory courses in Engineering degrees. Consequently, teachers look for attractive ways to introduce relevant concepts, which sometimes are hard to grasp via analytic development. Among others, interactive tools with graphical representation of such concepts have been demonstrated to be effective to contribute to their theoretical understanding : cognitive psychology studies show that people acquire better knowledge doing things and thinking about the consequences of their actions , better than just visualizing a figure or reading a book. Thus, among other advantages, simulation and experimentation require students to engage in learning, becoming essential parts of the teaching-learning process, which are especially significant for automatic control courses. As known, the acquisition of practical skills and experimentation plays a vital role in technology and engineering education.
Fortunately, the development of virtual laboratories (VLs) with graphical and interactive applications has received a great deal of attention in recent years in automatic control education . Several programming languages and environments have appeared to help the teachers to build this kind of tools (notice that they are usually the ones who are in charge of creating the applications), especially reducing the development time as well as high programming knowledge requirements.
Among others, Easy Java Simulations (EJS), created by Francisco Esquembre , is a widely used language for building interactive resources for higher education. It is a freeware open-source Java-based tool devoted to perform discrete simulations with an easy-use environment to design user-friendly and interactive interfaces. Another important issue related to EJS is that is continuously being enriched with new options and features.
Given this context, a teaching innovative project was proposed at the University of Extremadura, entitled ‘Development of virtual laboratories as self-assessment tools in courses in the area of Systems Engineering and Automation’, to account for several issues in introductory courses in engineering degrees. In particular, a threefold need was detected:
1) have self-assessment tools to improve teaching and student learning in laboratory sessions;
2) simplify the teacher correction task for laboratory sessions in order to reduce the time spent and define objective criteria for that purpose; and
3) provide students a bank to solve and correct problems.
The language EJS was used to build the interactive tools. It should be remarked that the project was initially conceived as self-assessment tools for laboratory courses but finally the VLs developed were used to support basic concepts in both theoretical and laboratory sessions, mainly related to linear systems modelling.
 Guzmán, J.L., Costa-Castelló, R., Dormido, S., Berenguel, M. (2016). An Interactive-Based Methodology to Support Control Education. IEEE Control Systems Magazine 63, pp. 63–76.
 Dormido Bencomo, S. (2004). Control Learning: Present and Future. Annual Reviews in Control 28(1), pp. 115–136.
 Esquembre, F. (2004). Easy Java Simulations: A Software Tool to Create Scientific Simulations in Java. Computer Physics Communications 156, pp. 199–204.