Projects Underway

A Novel On-line Approach for “e-student” Remote Laboratory Experiments

Daniel Jones

Project Team
  • Mohammed A. Abdallah, SUNY IT

SUNY Polytechnic Institute

2014

Tier Two

Project Abstract:

Introduction

Advanced information technology provides students access to a wide range of learning experiences. One of the challenges of the on-line forum is providing exposure to hands-on laboratory experience to students. The goal of this project is to actively engage on-line students in the learning process. The crux of this proposal is to investigate and validate a new concept of bringing state-of-the-art technology to enhance pedagogical on-line learning approaches and provide flexibility of time and location for both students and faculty. These new developments will provide capabilities for adoption at a course level, college wide, and possibly beyond. Creating a dynamic and efficient learning environment with ubiquitous access to computing and laboratory resources is the main goal of this proposal. Additionally, this new alternative environment is expected to provide enhancements to the recently developed on-line instructional models in engineering, science, and technology. Furthermore, it will be an effective test bed for new educational technology of core interest to SUNY. For example, it will enable on- line delivery of Physics laboratory courses to fulfill General Education requirements for students who do not have direct and immediate access to the required laboratory equipment.

Justification and Background

In electrical and mechanical engineering technology programs, practical application of theoretical concepts has been traditionally taught via hands-on learning with experiments in a laboratory. On-line learning is becoming increasingly optimal for many students who are not on campus, but the current on-line learning approaches lack hands-on experience. To gain this experience, a development tool is needed to provide remote access to the physical hardware. Most of the development tools and hardware currently in place are too expensive for students, and so they must be purchased, installed, and hosted on the campuses of universities. Therefore, the hardware is always at the campus/server-side. To gain hands-on experience, a student must be on campus at a prescribed time in order to physically access the available hardware in labs. This hardware includes a wide range of equipment that students connect to electronics, computers, and software. Faculty currently teach students to use microprocessors and data acquisition devices to measure phenomena such as speed and acceleration of rigid bodies, pressure in fluid flow, and forces applied to a metal specimens as they are stretched.

To date, there are three solutions to provide some kind of hands-on experience in on-line learning. First, simulation can be used. Students can use simulation tools installed on their computers, or they can remotely access simulation tools which are hosted by the university. In both cases, students do not gain the hands- on experience that is available to on-campus students. Second, some schools invite their students a few times on-campus to expose them to the hardware and provide the necessary hands- on labs. This is not a practical solution since not all students will be able to make the trip at the prescribed time and place. Third, students can remotely access the development tools which are hosted on campus, but the problem with this approach is that the attached hardware is not accessible. Students are not able to touch the connected hardware, change the experimental variables, or even see and monitor the outputs.

Some of the groundwork for this proposal has been accomplished by one of the PIs using funds from a IITG Tier I grant in 2013. The idea was to separate the hardware from the software. The software was on the campus/server-side, and the hardware was handled by students. Students locally connected their hardware to their computers and while remotely accessing the software. A module has an image of the software installed on campus servers, and it provided this image to any authorized students with remote on-line access. This approach has been successfully developed and tested, but the drawback is that not all hardware can be purchased by students. Some large and expensive equipment, such as an Instron Tensile Testing Machine, must be on campus. Therefore, this novel approach is proposed to provide hands-on experience to on-line learners.

The Proposed Idea
The PIs propose a multi-phase project.

Phase 1: Developing a new on-line laboratory experiments that utilize dedicated software such as LabVIEW. This will provide on-line learners with access and control of different types of hardware. A student will remotely access LabVIEW to control hardware on experimental test stands that are set up on campus. A student will change experimental parameters using electro-mechanical actuators. For example, a student could turn on a pump and open a valve to adjust the follow of water through a pipe. Using LabVIEW, the student will collect data using sensors in order to monitor the results on- line. For example, the student could measure the pressure drop between the inlet and outlet of the valve to measure flow rate, and the resulting data will be transmitted to the remote student on-line for further analysis.

Phase 2 : Connecting a camera to provide a live video stream to the on-line student. A secured internet camera will be set up in the lab with adequate lighting to allow the student to watch the experiment in real time. The student will be able control the camera (zoom in and out, rotate, pan back and forth, etc.) to see different aspects of the experiment. For example, the student could look at the meter to see how much electrical power is consumed by pump, and then change the view to look at the angular setting of a valve. The student would then be able to control the hardware and visually monitor the experiment.

Phase 3: A robot in the lab to be controlled on- line by the remote student. This robot, known as“e-student,” would serve as a friend on campus to help set up and run experiments that are more sophisticated. The “e-student” will provide additional access that is beyond the capabilities of LabVIEW. The “e-student” will perform simple tasks such as starting and stopping an experiment, or more complicated tasks such as moving tools from one place to another. It can be extended to more elaborate tasks such as placing an object at different locations on a track, or inserting resistors and capacitors into a breadboard.

The combined use of LabVIEW, the camera, and “e-student” will provide a range of options for on-line students. The results of this project will be utilized to expand capabilities into a wide range of different experiments accessible remotely at any time.

Project Outcome:

Have applied for additional IITG funds to extend this project. Have received campus funds to support this project.