Stanford University

News Service


NEWS RELEASE

11/27/01

Craig Kapitan, News Service (650) 724-5708;

ckapitan@stanford.edu

Fitting a classroom onto a dime

The doors are locked and the hallways dark inside Stanford's CIS-X building, but even though it's 3 a.m. on campus, a small group of high school students is beginning to use a laboratory. Their invisible hands tinker with a laser beam as they work to complete their class assignment.

Despite the late hour, the young scientists aren't yawning. If anything, their stomachs are growling because it's noon in Holland, where they are using a computer mouse to control Stanford's lab tools.

Even if the students were on campus, they wouldn't actually be able to handle the equipment which at full scale might spread across a small room. In this case, the setup is closer to the size of a shoebox.

It's all part of new technology recently launched by electrical engineering Professor Lambertus Hesselink. Through his distance learning company, live science experiments now can be conducted on Stanford's campus by students thousands of miles away. The robotically enhanced labs are accessed and controlled remotely over the Internet.

"We did this first," Hesselink says of his miniature labs, adding that his are the most advanced ones to date. "Now there are some other experimenters that are doing similar things, but I think we were the first in the world to do this."

Once widely distributed, the labs will benefit both the learning process and an institution's budget, Hesselink says. He estimates his labs are 50 to 100 times cheaper than the cost of building and maintaining a life-sized laboratory.

"Because we've used cameras and you can look at it [on screen], you don't need to have a big space around it where people can interact," he says of the labs' dollhouse-like stature. "So therefore you can put it all into a small box, and you can stack these things and in one room have many, many laboratories."

The labs also can run through the night to cater to students in different time zones and thus create more efficiencies.

In addition to controlling aspects as simple as room lighting, students control camera angles and levers on all the equipment. They converse together using a built-in chat room, take notes and review the assignment all online.

The new technology should offer more to students than the ability to finish a lab project at home. It also will open up new opportunities for classroom learning, Hesselink says.

"Suppose you have an atomic force microscope that might be sitting in China or somewhere, but there is an expert here that knows a lot about interpreting these pictures," he explains. "That person doesn't have to travel to China or wherever that microscope is. He could interact with them remotely.

"Nothing is local."

 

Ahead of the Internet curve

Hesselink's vision of remote-controlled Internet labs has been a work-in-progress since 1992.

Back then just as the web was being invented Hesselink proposed his idea to the National Science Foundation.

"They said, 'Well, it's a very interesting idea, but it's not worthwhile and it could not be done,'" Hesselink recalls, sporting an only slightly visible I-told-you-so grin. "So I looked at that and said, well, this is ahead of its time. These people really don't know what they're talking about."

In 1998, he tried again. This time he approached Stanford's Commission on Technology in Teaching and Learning. His proposal to build a lab accessible through the Internet garnered the highest rating and the largest amount of money that was given out.

"It was really a great success from there on," he says.

In 1999, using a full-sized table and conventional lab devices, Hesselink completed his first remote-controlled lab for the program. While the experiment in distance learning was well received (the School of Engineering and the School of Education both helped in evaluating the device), Hesselink realized there were still a few kinks that needed to be ironed out.

One problem was that students could not work on an experiment in groups, as they would in a real lab setting. The Internet technology was not yet available.

So after the experiment was completed, Hesselink partnered with two graduate students and formed Senvid, a private company devoted to furthering his vision. The partners Eric Bjornson and Dharmarus Rizal helped develop Senvid's own Internet applications for student collaboration.

The company unveiled its new, miniature version of the remote-controlled labs earlier this year. After a meeting in March with the Dutch minister of education, Senvid entered an agreement to have the product tested in 14,000 high schools and primary schools in Holland. Students began using the technology for the first time this month.

"Some colleagues say this will be useless [because a student needs to get a feel for the real-life lab equipment]," Hesselink says. "But that's like saying let's go back to walking everywhere because that's what we were born with. The world is changing."

 

From a shoebox to a dime

Even as Senvid tests the current miniature labs, Hesselink and his partners are working to institute the next step of his vision. While working with the Stanford Learning Lab several years ago, he coined the phrase "laboratory on a dime."

"My vision is, if you don't have to actually touch the equipment anymore, then size no longer matters," he explains. "You could take a microscope or some other optical device and look at these very small labs and they would appear to you as being big."

Using advanced lens and chemical technology, Hesselink hopes to have microchip-sized laboratories capable of hosting tiny chemistry experiments. He compares the technology to what is used in inkjet printers.

"As long as you get enough molecules together, the reaction will take place," he says, explaining that stocking cabinets full of chemicals for a normal classroom lab could become an expense of the past. "You don't need to have a big batch. A small batch is just as fine."

Hesselink hopes the labs will be affordable enough so that they could be distributed to schools that cannot afford to build life-sized labs. Instructors also could use the labs for in-class demonstrations.

The challenge for him now is figuring out how to get the data in and out of the experiments and how to hook them up. The group hopes to complete some test runs of their innovations by next summer.

 

Not 'virtual'

As Hesselink demonstrates one of Senvid's experiments involving measuring gases, the computer screen shows that a valve suddenly has stuck. He is not discouraged or embarrassed by the public setback, though. In fact, Hesselink is excited that it is happening during a demonstration.

"This is a normal thing that occurs," he explains, smiling. "It's a real effect that occurs in the laboratory."

Therein lies the difference between a virtual computer program depicting a laboratory setting and what Senvid is developing. Hesselink's labs may be a distant cousin of their virtual counterparts, but the differences are important, he says.

"Simulations will give you an ideal every time," he explains. "In reality that's not the case. We could use those programs to understand the physical world better, but it's not a replacement. Just like flying on a simulator is fun and it's very helpful, but I would rather not have a pilot who has only flown on one. Sometimes things go wrong."

When things go wrong with the Senvid experiments, students must go back and pinpoint what the cause may have been. Hesselink doesn't envision his labs replacing all life-sized labs either.

"I think they will be side by side," he says. "Normal laboratory work is still very helpful in terms of getting dexterity, feeling and interaction with the equipment.

"There's the ability to have the best of both worlds. You get your hands-on experience, but you get it all automated right here."

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By Craig Kapitan

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