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Mech-Net Remote Laboratory Experiments
Why a Remote Lab?

The Problem

There have been numerous articles written, studies created and commentators have noted that there is a desperate need for the United States to effectively improve the teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to our students. This encompasses the requirement to motivate students to pursue careers in science, and engineering as well as getting across the true nature of technology to those students whose interest will lead them into other career areas. While the benefits to society of achieving these goals has been discussed at length, along with the need for systemic change in our educational system, we still find ourselves as a nation falling further behind in the teaching of math and science.

It is generally agreed that students of all levels learn more, retain concepts longer, and are more motivated when given the opportunity to participate in hands-on experience; but not  all hands-on experience is equal. Traditional experiments have typically demonstrated a single concept in a pure laboratory setting. An example of this type of experiment: stir powder A into liquid B and note color change. Missing from these types of demonstrations is the true holistic nature of technology and engineering. The lack of motivation for performing the experiment, the necessity for asking and answering many questions before performing the experiment, and many other problems that an engineer must deal with are not present. In other words, these types of demonstrations provide the answer to a single question: “What happens when I follow these instructions?” True engineering involves first asking the question, “What do I want to achieve”? followed by the question, “What do I need to learn before I can answer the first question”? This is where many students who are not currently achieving at a high level in math class may in fact see a true need for learning how to do a particular math formula to be able to answer the question. Thus gain a more in depth need as to why the math is important. An engineer must not only have the knowledge of many separate concepts, but the ability to integrate these concepts into practical understanding in order to be successful. Considering and applying these concepts provides students with an understanding of science and engineering so they can make an informed choice about the suitability of a career in that field. This type of instruction also makes engineering fun, making it more likely they would consider a career in science and engineering. During his time teaching at the Aviation School Mr. Gilbert came to realize if he could get the students motivated he could teach them anything. It was always a main goal to have his students actually understand the concepts not just memorize the facts for a test. The original idea behind incorporating a wind tunnel into his classroom was to show his students how a carburetor worked by demonstration versus drawing a venturi on the chalkboard. 

The main obstacle in this type of teaching is that it requires mechanical engineering laboratory equipment that is research quality in deriving data from the models. Much of the laboratory equipment that has been sold to the schools for technical education is sufficient for teaching basic concepts, but is lacking in accuracy in testing methods to conduct mathematical formulas. Take for instance the use of a small wind tunnel in the class room. Many of the current wind tunnels use a force probe to measure the lift. While a valid and interesting way of demonstrating the principle of lift, it leaves out important algebraic formulas. The interest in science is generated, but no proficiency in math is achieved. In a research grade wind tunnel the primary measurement variable is pressure. This allows the introduction of algebraic formulas which can be broken down into a simple step by step method of instruction. At each step a physical principle was combined with a math concept. Each portion of the formula was tied together by continually using examples from earlier problems and experiments. When the basic concepts are tied directly to a math formula to solve the problem, this allows for the student to grasp a direct connection to the math. In writing the lesson plans every effort was taken to start with experiments that used simple math formulas that the student could easily accomplish, then progress onto more complex problems while continually using examples from earlier experiments. This method brings the math formula to life and generates a real world connection to formulas that many students need to be properly motivated.

The challenge for conducting this type of experimentation at the high school and community college level is that the equipment required to produce data that is accurate enough to be used to solve mathematical equations must be research quality. The models along with the data acquisition system all must be of a high quality to produce accurate repeatable data. If a student is conducting an experiment that produces less than a 2% deviation in the data and the system used to produce the data has error deviation greater than 5% repeatability then the experiment will not work.

The problem is that the high level of precession required for this equipment to produce the accurate data results is very expensive to purchase and somewhat difficult to maintain. to Most Universities that are using sophisticated laboratory equipment to conduct mechanical engineering laboratory experiments employed trained laboratory technicians that are responsible for maintaining the equipment and changing the models used to conduct the experiment. Often this type of personal is not available at the high school level.

Some of the disadvantages are it requires a great deal of space, can cause concerns in regards to the amount of noise generated, along with the safety issues and liabilities of students being near rotating fan blades and other moving parts. These factors coupled with the knowledge the equipment may only be used for a short period of time in a given semester make the equipment being on site problematic for the school.

The Solution

Key Benefits

  • Various Equipment Platforms – online access for experiments on wind tunnels, single cylindar engines and turbine engines
     
  • Real-Time Experience – The educator/student gets real-time data screens, video/sound feeds.
     
  • Data Acquistion – Educator/student can receive all of the data from the experiment in Excel spreadsheet format for post analysis/processing.
     
  • "Canned" Experiments or "Custom" Experiments – The educator/student can choice one of the many Mech-Net experiments to run or submit their own to be setup on the appropriate piece of equipment.
     
  • Web Cast Experiments – Web casts can be established by the educator to perform the experiment with a number of students in remote locations from the educator.
     

This leads to the solution that we at Mech-Net have developed. For years we have been operating our laboratory equipment with Graphical User Interface (GUI) software to control the basic functions of the equipment. By adding additional controls and features we can now give the person operating the equipment remotely the same experience as if they where in the same room as the equipment. In fact the ability for the instructor to conduct experiments on different types of models without having to actually change the model in some way makes this approach better than having the equipment at each location.

Most of the schools already have in place high speed internet connections and complex computer networks. This approach allows them to utilize the equipment that they already have in place to conduct the experiments remotely. The student will be controlling the equipment along with the models during the course of the experiment. The ability to remotely control a device that is located in another distant location may well be more exciting to the student than a device that is at their location. With the use of video cameras and sound, the students will get the feel of the hands-on experience. The important factor is that they are actually controlling a real device. Not manipulating a canned software package. This we feel is a very important factor because it retains the hands-on approach. The student will actually see the model move and see the visual aids as if he/she where in the same room. The excitement of actually starting a small turbine engine and witness the flame exiting the tail pipe at start up will do a great deal in interesting the students to conduct experiments in difficult subjects such as entropy and enthalpy. 

Many of the advancements that have been made in recent years in regards to the speed of the internet along with the graphical interface software used to retrieve the data and manipulate the equipment have made this an extremely viable to engineering education. With the ability to remotely control the models and see real time data displayed on the computer screen, it is as if the students where conducting the experiment but with a 1,000 mile cable. The students will have to ability to retrieve the data from the experiment they conducted in an Excel Spreadsheet format to allow for post process evaluation of the data and also to use the data the format it into charts and graphs. This allows for the student also seeing first hand how the computer skills that they have learned can be use in a real world situation to illustrate their data.

The internet can also be used to conduct a web cast to allow for teacher training and question and answer sessions. This will allow for the training to be conducted at a greatly reduced cost.

The use of the equipment can very well expand beyond the use the basic experiments. Modifications can be made to basic airfoil models in the wind tunnels to add such devices as leading edge stall strips and vortex generators. This again utilizes the concepts of starting with the basics then move on to more complex problems. The use of the wind tunnels for the students to conduct individual research projects is also a very viable concept. The school can send their research project to our location. We will mount the device in the wind tunnel and then allow the student to operate the wind tunnel to obtain the data from their model. The students could also use the data obtained for their science fair projects.

GDJ Inc. | 7585 Tyler Boulevard | Mentor, OH 44060 | 440.975.0258 | F. 440.975.0258 | E. info@mech-net.com
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