Not sci-fi: Creating meaningful on-demand labs for remote students

Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, many of us indulged in a certain recreational activity that provided an escape from school work. It was called reading. Engineering students seemed to prefer science fiction from Asimov, Bradbury, Ellison, and Heinlein. Their vivid scenes of Mars, future Earth, and other worlds inspired many fanciful late-night conversations.

Thirty years later, life on Earth sometimes resembles what they and we imagined. One example comes from Dr. C. M. Markan in the Department of Physics and Computer Science at Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra, India.

His work was inspired by an initiative from India’s Ministry of Human Resources and Development, and the ongoing goal is to increase the accessibility of education via information technology. In 2009, 10 universities began a pilot project aimed at creating an interesting and useful lab experience for engineering students in remote locations around India.

A typical remote experience relies on either simulations that exist only inside a computer or actual, preconfigured setups available for fixed blocks of time and accessed via remote login. Markan’s team had a better idea: give a large number of students remote, on-demand access to real test equipment.

Today, students set up their experiments by interacting with an animated, simulated interface. This front-end process generates a list of commands for the major steps: configure the instruments, set up the experimental hardware, execute the tests, and capture the results.

On the backend, real test hardware implements the commands in a rapid, one-shot batch mode. To avoid conflicts between multiple simultaneous users, a queuing protocol manages and executes requests in a first-in/first-out manner.

Measurements are enabled by a relay matrix that wires a circuit according to each student’s instructions. Equipment such as LXI-based power supplies, function generators, and oscilloscopes from Agilent power the circuit, apply the stimulus, and capture the results. Acquired data is sent back to the student’s PC for display on an animated instrument that enables analysis and report generation.

The response has been positive. Among the participating universities, ratings from surveyed students were 35% “outstanding” and 45% “very good.” Perhaps more impressive, ratings from faculty were 80% “outstanding” and 15% “very good.”

Looking to the future, the universities are now creating a hierarchy of labs covering topics such as basic electronics, analog communication electronics, and fiber optic communications. This engaging use of remote-access technology bodes well for engineering education on future Earth, and beyond.

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