QNRF Newsletter Archive

Remote laboratory technology opens up opportunities in engineering education

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Remote smart vibration platform experiment with webcam.


Within the world of university education, and specifically in engineering, physical laboratories are necessary to ensure proper learning and research. They guarantee a platform for students to use theoretical knowledge learned in lectures in a practical arena, allowing them to conduct experiments, test and verify hypotheses, learn from mistakes, and ultimately become the engineers of our ever-evolving future.

At the same time, education is becoming increasingly Internet oriented and, consequently, the engineering world is developing and refining its approach towards practical laboratories. Professor Hamid Parsaei from Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ) and colleagues from the University of Houston and Texas Southern University are at the forefront of this technological advancement in Qatar, with a project that aims to develop Advanced Remote Laboratory Technology.

Remote laboratories are used to conduct real (instead of virtual) experiments at a physical location while a person at a different geographical location operates the technology to control these experiments. Professor Gangbing Song, of the University of Houston and one of the co-principal investigators on this project, is one of the first to systematically introduce remote experiments into his teachings.

 

One problem with current remote laboratory technology is its inability to cope with an overwhelming amount of data – as the number of experiments increases, the network management and cost increases (as every experiment must have its own Internet accessible network IP with multiple open ports). In an interview with Professor Parsaei, he explained some other reasons to cut down costs.

“Engineering is one of the most expensive disciplines to teach. You need to provide equipment, a full-time instructor, physical space, and the skills and expertise to supervise students. This system, although in its early stages, looks like it could be the answer to all of these problems. No additional space is required, it allows multiple instances of access to the system, it’s flexible, and the results generated will be the 100% faithful to the actual experiment.”

In addition to expense issues, another problem that this project addresses is the robustness of the experiments; remote experiments can often be affected by hardware and software failures. Professor Parsaei contends that by adapting and changing the remote experiment system to use open source, scalable and robust data protocols designed for web applications, these issues could be smoothed out. The study aims to develop a trouble-free remote laboratory technology that runs across all platforms (PC, MAC, PDA, etc.), browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, etc.), and operating systems (Windows, Linux, etc.). It also aims to make a more user-friendly interface, with a leading edge feature named ‘Web Perspective’.

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Remote laboratory web interface showing the smart vibration experiment.

This project will soon develop a generic scheduler web server for a remote experiment farm, and an easy-to-use unified remote laboratory publishing tool for laboratory developers. The team hopes that its findings will ultimately benefit TAMUQ’s course teaching and research facilities while sharing the results and findings of this project with other universities and colleges.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for students not able to access the physical labs to be able to get to the equipment, perform experiments using computer simulations, and basically see the outcome of experiments when they change the variables,” said Professor Parsaei. Based on responses from more than 2,800 colleges and universities, the 2013 survey of online education found that approximately 6.7 million students were enrolled in at least one online course in the fall semester of 2011. To provide such online courses, remote access and control laboratory equipment are necessary, especially for engineering education. “If you are running a class with 90 or 100 students, then this is the best alternative to having the physical facility,” maintained Professor Parsaei.

The project, halfway through its four years, has 12 stages; the first being to set up a remote experiment laboratory at TAMUQ. The required equipment is in place, including servers, rack, webcams, software, etc, which are being used temporarily until the new technology being developed through the project can replace them. A pilot test on the developed remote experiments is scheduled to be carried out at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University. Once this has all gone smoothly, the newly designed tools will be integrated into the teaching of TAMUQ’s remote smart vibration platform experiment.

Bringing the revamped remote experiment to the engineering students at TAMUQ will allow the students to experience the convenience of the new user interface and database, and will also allow the researchers to gather feedback on the new system which will in turn be used to improve the system design.

Indeed, the success of the project could open up many other doors for engineering education. The current popularity of MOOCs (massively open online courses), offered by the likes of Coursera and EdX, is understandable, but their content tends to focus – for obvious reasons – on subjects where no lab access is required. The worked funded by QNRF here could change all that and allow engineering courses to be taught remotely in the future.

Professor Parsaei asserts that the project is cultivating an “innovative, cost-effective, portable, and flexible” system that will benefit teaching and research not only in Qatar, but potentially at any research establishment in the world.


NPRP 4-892-2-335
Hands-on Experiment via Internet - To Develop a Unified Remote Laboratory Framework for Cross Nation Engineering Education

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