Brian Woo-Shem

Mechanical engineer, tech wizard, cartoonist, writer, creator of things.

CO₂ Sensor Lab

A real-life engineering project becomes part of the academic curriculum

I co-developed a frugal CO₂ sensor˺ for personal use to know how safe my classrooms were during the pandemic. When discussing ways to adapt Modern Instrumentation Lab to a remote learning environment, Dr. Godfrey Mungal˺, Professor of Mechanical Engineering (and Professor Emeritus at Stanford˺), suggested we could use the CO₂ sensor to give students a chance to work with real data even without access to the lab. When classes returned in-person, he supported incorporating CO₂ lab into the permanent curriculum because it allows students to bring the principles of measurement and validation from the course to solve problems in daily life, where industry-grade data acquisition systems are not affordable or practical.

The current CO₂ lab enables students to investigate the relative risk of COVID-19 in the places they go by measuring and quantifying the amount of ventilation relative to the occupancy.

In the future, the CO₂ lab will look at applications to the HVAC industry: testing ventilation in different buildings and using CO₂ levels to adjust the ventilation rate for energy-saving control in LEED certified buildings.

I built a curriculum around the CO₂ sensors to challenge students to:

  1. Determine sensor specifications and build the device – a simplified version of the process we used to develop the original sensor.
  2. Devise their own methods to test if inexpensive electronic sensors are working accurately, and apply theory from the lecture such as normal distributions, system response time, and outliers to real data.
  3. Choose scenarios from everyday life to measure & examine.

The CO₂ lab consistently earns praise from students

“It was exciting to see the process from start to finish for a lab and the chance to create your own experiment was fun. It also had real world applications beyond engineering which I appreciated.”

CO₂ Lab Student, Fall 2022

The CO₂ Lab is relevant to daily life

“The CO₂ lab helped me figure out that there was an issue with the ventilation in my house! It turned out the spike in CO₂ was due to broken ventilation pipes from the water heater and the house heating system leaking into the house.”

CO₂ Lab Student, Fall 2022

“I actually use what I learned every day I drive to prevent getting fatigued on the road.”

CO₂ Lab Student, Fall 2022

Want your own CO₂ sensor? Build instructions are available on GitHub˺.

The lab curriculum I developed is taught by the Santa Clara University Department of Mechanical Engineering˺ in the Modern Instrumentation for Engineers Lab. If you’re a current student – it’s cool you found this and you’re free to cite this if you want. However, consistent with my teaching philosophy, there are no answers here for the lab 😉

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