Will Remote Control Labs Make Online Engineering Degrees More Hands-on?

Online cloud-based Labs for Distance Education. What’s next?

Stanford’s Online Remote Biotechnology Labs

One of Stanford's biotic processing units (BPU)

One of Stanford’s biotic processing units (BPU)

Stanford University has just released a series of remote control biotechnology laboratories that allow students to interact with experiments remotely.

The team has currently developed three remote biotechnology labs called Biotic Processing Units (BPU). They are defined as tools which will be able to repeatedly stimulate biological matter and measure the response. The most ambitious of the robotic biology labs are controlled by users over the cloud.

“Biotechnology today is very similar to where computing technology used to be,” said Ingmar Riedel-Kruse, assistant professor of bioengineering to Stanford News’ Tom Abate. “Biological labs are housed in big buildings and the technology is hard to access, but we are changing that.

“We are enabling people to interact with biological materials and perform experiments the way they interact with computers today. We call this interactive biotechnology.”

From a smartphone, students can order the robotic arm within the cloud-based bio-lab to drop substrate into a petri dish in a variety of patterns. Scanners then detect how the organisms respond to the substrate using chemical reactions within the petri dish. These chemical based biological responses are called Chemotaxis.

Stanford’s iLabs for Online Remote Electrical Engineering Labs

One of Stanford's electrical engineering iLabs.

One of Stanford’s electrical engineering iLabs.

This isn’t the first time Stanford has put labs online. As early as 1996, the Electrical Engineering department has had online “experiments in a shoebox”, or iLabs.

These labs can consist of traditional experiments like diffraction, or more complicated experiments like nano-optical conveyor belts.

Images of the lab equipment setup and experimental results are recorded and then posted online. Students can then access the experiment and perform the lab as if they were using the equipment in person.

Originally, the iLabs, like the BPUs, were controlled remotely from actual lab equipment.

The concept to record the experimental data and equipment images was conceived by Lambertus Hesselink, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Stanford.

The decision to record the experimental results and images was due to scheduling conflicts associated with the equipment. With the growing number of online students, the move to recorded iLabs made the education tool scalable.

A demonstration of the iLabs experiments can be seen below:

Johns Hopkins’ Online Learning with a Mail Order Labs

Johns Hopkins mails a Development kit to online students taking the course Embedded Microprocessor Systems.

Johns Hopkins mails a Development kit to online students taking the course Embedded Microprocessor Systems.

Johns Hopkins is also using remote controlled labs. They also decided to take a more traditional approach to the distance lab education problem.

For their Online Masters of Electrical and Computer Engineering course Embedded Microprocessor Systems, they will actually mail you a development kit.

“Our RF, microwave, human robotics and computer engineering labs all set us apart from other on-campus programs,” said Dr. Brian Jennison, program chair of the electrical and computer engineering program at Johns Hopkins. “Traditionally, this was hard to duplicate online.”

As for the school’s remote control labs, Dr. Jennision mentioned that there are pilot labs for microwave components and systems lab. The equipment itself stays on campus but the measurements and characterizing of the microwave systems can be controlled remotely online.

The Next Step for Online Education and Online Labs

These case studies point out the need of online education to become more hands-on. Students miss the technical lab skills they need to succeed in many industry conditions while away from campus.

It is therefore not surprising that Riedel-Kruse said, “the obvious next application (for BPUs) is online education at scale that includes true biology experiments, also opening new opportunities for learning-research.”

His electrical engineering counterpart at Stanford agrees. “If you’re going to earn a science or engineering degree in a massive open online courses MOOC, I think that you will need to fulfill some sort of lab requirement,” said Prof. Hesselink.

As such he continued that remote online labs like the iLabs and BPUs “could be a very effective way to share expensive and complicated laboratories with the masses to meet that requirement.”

I suspect that the use of these online labs will grow as the popularity of online engineering degrees increases. Currently, the majority of online engineering programs are targeted at working professionals in the form of a master’s degree. Many of these degrees don’t require a lab component. Online labs, however, can expand the market into online engineering undergraduate degrees.

Johns Hopkins has gained some success with their current distance based labs. “Using labs and equipment where students can measure high frequency, fab circuits and measure circuit performance is very important to a student’s education. We are expanding this to more ECE courses where students are sent development boards to program,” said Dr. Jennison.

Perhaps Johns Hopkins and Stanford are not the only ones expanding their online labs.

Do you think online labs can replace the real thing? Will this open the door to online engineering undergraduate degrees? Comment below.

Written by

Shawn Wasserman

For over 10 years, Shawn Wasserman has informed, inspired and engaged the engineering community through online content. As a senior writer at WTWH media, he produces branded content to help engineers streamline their operations via new tools, technologies and software. While a senior editor at Engineering.com, Shawn wrote stories about CAE, simulation, PLM, CAD, IoT, AI and more. During his time as the blog manager at Ansys, Shawn produced content featuring stories, tips, tricks and interesting use cases for CAE technologies. Shawn holds a master’s degree in Bioengineering from the University of Guelph and an undergraduate degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo.