Over the past several years an inter-university team has collaborated with IBM Canada, under CANARIE sponsorship, to develop software that harnesses web services to allow researchers to control experiments from remote locations and to process data from those experiments [1, 2]. To date, this software known as "Science Studio" has been used primarily for control of complex spectroscopic equipment as well as the reduction and storage of data produced. Recently, a new project has been launched that will be directed at a broader range of scientific services for experiments that can be used to teach and train students both at the secondary school or university/college levels.

There are several important reasons to pursue the development of this type of service. Access to some of the classic teaching experiments in physical science and technology is limited by reason of safety, cost or scheduling difficulties. Remotely accessed experiments could be available to students for much longer periods and could be engineered to minimize the possibilities of accidents and environmental damage. The economies of scale could be exercised to reduce the per student cost over many schools or districts. Moreover a web managed science service could provide many features lacking in a classroom experiment. All experimental variables would be captured, thus affording the student a better opportunity to analyze the uncertainties in the outcomes. Portions of an experiment that present manipulative challenges in an otherwise valuable learning experience could be "stabilized" using the robotic mechanisms that operate the experiment. Most importantly, new experimental outcomes would be revealed using optical, electrochemical and spectroscopic probes not readily available or maintained in most teaching labs.

The powerful advantages of the internet to provide students with remote access to teaching experiments have been recognized for well over a decade and a large number of projects have been initiated [3-9]. Over this period, web services applications have expanded and the availability of robust and inexpensive mechatronic devices and sensors for robotic control provides designers with a wide range of possible choices for creating an intense experimental environment. To harness such opportunities, a web services platform called "REALM" is being developed on the back of Science Studio that allows wide flexibility in the creation of a remote experiments as well as a bank for all data produced by them.

Phase 1: Developing Remote Robotic Control Experiments for Engineering Students

The REALM Group consists of several software developers at Western University and IBM Canada. We are currently establishing the core web software that will provide access to robotically controlled experiments of many different designs. In the first phase of this project, funded by CANARIE, students in mechanical engineering will be taught the principles required to control robotic arms that are housed in a laboratory at Western. Some 80 third year engineering students at Western and Simon Fraser University will be able conduct live laboratory exercises using two robotic arms beginning in September 2014. It is expected that most users will employ wireless tablets for communication with the experiments.

A very tight development timetable is in place:

  1. February 5, 2014: The entire software framework (from User Interface to Arm Motor Drivers) was tested in a "Proof of Concept" demonstration using a simulation of the robotic arm.
  2. April 3, 2014: Two of four user cases for student experiments will be demonstrated to CANARIE using at least one of the two robotic arms and with preliminary camera and arm geometries.
  3. May 4, 2014: All four user cases will be tested using both robotic arms and final camera configurations (CANARIE demonstration will be later in the summer and will include a review of preparations for the experimental course).
  4. August 31, 2014: The tested REALM software and hardware will be ready for use in engineering classes at both universities, including a full syllabus, a scheduling service, a repository for test results and trained teaching assistants.
  5. December 18, 2014: User evaluations will be fully completed and a final report on the project presented.

One of the important objectives of Phase 1 is to learn how to configure live access experiments so that they have much greater impact on students than simulated experiments. Another objective is to provide command controls that feel "natural", but that do not require excess bandwidth. A third objective is learn the most efficient processes for supervising and supplying a remote laboratory on a 24/7 basis. We anticipate that a successful outcome of Phase 1 will lead to the incorporation of the remote laboratory course into the syllabus of both universities with course expenses covered by a cross-university agreement.

Phase 2: Planning for Remote Science Experiments for Secondary School Students

We believe that the ultimate impact of remote access student experiments lies in the secondary school sector. Most education consultants agree that one of the most important objectives of student laboratory experiments is to instil a curiosity (or better, an excitement) about the way nature functions. The opportunity for self-directed discovery in a lab setting has been found to be much greater than in a formal classroom [11].Thus, at a time when students are still largely undecided about their future course in life the introduction to science as it is currently practiced presents an unparalleled opportunity to lift our profile. Modern science has relatively inexpensive analytical probes and robotic mechanisms that could alleviate much of the drudgery and uncertainty from experiments of old. As well, there is every possibility of removing every element of danger to any student; even when somewhat aggressive reactions are used, the student is prevented by software from "|scaling up" the quantities of reactants. Finally, the Ontario secondary school system is large, rich in talent and resources and with the capacity to support the expansion of these experiments should this proposed project be as successful as we believe.

Even during 2014 project year, the REALM Project has initiated a pilot study of possible experiment designs for secondary school students that could be implemented in new project (yet to be approved) in 2015. In 2014, the design would be finalized and a simulation possibly created. We have involved several science teachers from Montcalm Secondary School in London to provide guidance on the opportunities and limitations of such services. They have suggested several experiments that would enhance the current science program for students in Grades 11 and 12 (see Appendix). Of these, two (one physics and one chemistry) have been chosen that are believed particularly apt for testing the effects of remote experiments on students and teachers: simple and inexpensive construction materials, short duration of the experiment and the experiment is not readily available to students in most London secondary schools.

Young’s Double Slit Experiment

From the equation provided in the Appendix, students can determine accurately the wavelength of a number of radiation sources having a fixed narrow bandwidth. Thus, the experiment supports the concept of light as having a wave nature. The objective of the remote experiment would be to use several monochromatic light sources, the slit width and the distance between the source and the screen where the interference pattern is measured.

The experiment device would be an optical bench to hold the components The remote experiment must allow for the following translations using motors: (1) accurate movement of the slit along the axis between the source and the screen (to measure Δx) ; (2) positioning of different radiation sources (at least three) into the plane of the experiment in order to determine each of their wavelengths (accuracy to 0.5mm) ; (3) positioning of slits with differing wavelengths into the plane of the experiment (accuracy to 0.5mm). Sources suggested are: a He-Ne laser, a red LED "penlight" and a sodium lamp. "Slits" of two different sizes could be translated into the optical plane. A possible optional addition could be a UV source ( mercury "blacklight") and a fluorescent screen.

The following position encoders would be required: (1) an encoder that is capable of accurate measurement of Δx (the distance between appearances of fringes on the screen) to six significant figures, (2) two encoders of lower accuracy for the positioning of source and slits As well, a fixed video camera with some resolution is required to show the screen, and a video camera with swivel and zoom is required to show elements of the entire experiment.

The Iodine "Clock" Experiment

For the chemical reaction described in the Appendix the rate is determined as a function of iodate ion concentration in the solution. The critical manoeuvre is to have the iodate mix with the other reactants in as reproducible a manner as possible. A reason (other than safety) that this experiment has been avoided in classes is that reproducible manipulation of the dispensing pipettes is difficult. Thus a prime requirement is that the reactants be introduced and mixed in a reproducible manor. As well, the "end point" of the reaction is difficult to judge for some iodate ion concentrations; thus, the optical density of the solution should be determined by photometry. The reaction flask should be capable of being cleaned rapidly and reproducibly between experiments. Thus, all liquids must be drained from the flask and one or more doses of cleansing solution be introduced and subsequently drained.

The experiment device would be a cylindrical quartz flask of total volume of 10 mL constructed with a robotic drain valve at the flask bottom and three or more electro-mechanical dispensing valves near the top of the flask. The dispensing valves would be capable of delivering volumes as small as 10 µl reproducibly. Teflon tubing is used to conduct the liquid reactants into contact in the flask thus avoiding droplet formation. The reactant solution would be stirred either using an ultrasound inductor or by a Teflon-coated micro stirring bar. Near the bottom of the flask a microscopic camera and a photocell would be attached with incident radiation provided by an LED. The same experimental device could also be readily converted to carry out a variety of acid-base or oxidation-reduction reactions. Thus, emplacement of micro glass and reference electrodes in the flask bottom should be considered for the measurement of pH and oxidation potential. The experiment device could also be used for qualitative observation of reactions of active metals with water or dilute acids. The volume of the assembly has been minimized to reduce any possibility of violent chemical reactions and to produce as little chemical waste as possible. A preliminary design of the flask is shown in Figure 1.

These requirements are now being considered within an undergraduate design engineering class and advice will be provided on component availability, design issues problems and chemical and materials management.

Phase 3: Developing Remote Science Experiments for Students in the Thames Valley Board of Education

Beginning in early 2015 we would plan to undertake the active design building and deployment of remote experiments that would be targeted to Grade 11 and 12 students in the Thames Valley Board District. The structure of the one year program would, in many respects mirror that of 2014: software/hardware development in the first half year and extensive testing and evaluation in the second half. Twenty four chemistry experimental devices and ten physics devices would be built and located in a protected laboratory environment. Two science teachers, four teaching assistants and an instrument technician would be assigned full time to supervise and maintain the experiments that would be tested on a group of 1000 students from Thames Valley schools in a preliminary evaluation phase. The Western and IBM teams would again collaborate in defining requirements and in designing and building the software/hardware components. The students would do four separate series of experiments (modules). Each module would have a simulation section that preceded a live contact session. Evaluation of Phase 3 would be complete by the end of 2015.

There are many lessons that we would seek to learn from this project.

Funding for Phase 3 is not yet in place. A preliminary project cost is $1.2 M in cash and $0.3M of in-kind donations such as teacher release time, rebuilding of network infrastructure in some schools and the hosting of the network servers. We will be preparing a proposal to CANARIE to fund part of this project as part of the Network Assisted Platforms program. For this to happen, additional support from other sponsors is crucial. Thus we will be approaching IBM, Google, Rogers, Microsoft, Bell Canada and Ontario Ministry of Education and other organizations to participate financially.


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