Imagine a cash-strapped school district having access to sophisticated laboratory equipment that allows students to conduct science experiments just like their counterparts in wealthier districts for a fraction of the cost. This "remote experimentation" option is currently being tested over the Internet at Columbia's Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science.
The application itself is quite simple, according to Professor Jordan Spencer, who this spring successfully used a site at a university in Norway for a refrigeration experiment conducted by engineering students at Columbia and is working with colleagues in other European countries to develop the project further.
Once an experimentation site is established all that is needed for others to take advantage of it are fast computer connections that provide access to the remote site over the Internet, a digital camera and common stepper motors, Spencer says. Beyond the computer costs, these other costs are minimal -- very good cameras can be purchased for hundreds of dollars, although top-of-the-line cameras can cost up to $4,000 -- and stepper motors cost less than $400 each.
Schools or other institutions could pool resources to establish an experimentation site, then rent "time" for other students to perform and monitor experiments on their computers over the Internet.
Spencer's concept is already a fact-of-life for many research astronomers and physicists. Astronomers around the world are renting time on the Hubble space telescope to view distant galaxies and physicists take advantage of atom smashers at various laboratories to conduct experiments from afar.
The Internet already provides opportunities for experimentation, Spencer noted. One site allows viewers to actually water a garden in Austria by computer, with water tubes that are driven by a simple stepper motor.
Spencer began thinking about the possibilities of remote experimentation after the attic of his home in New Jersey was invaded by what he thought were raccoons. A digital camera hooked up to a television allowed him to spy on the creatures while he was on campus teaching.
As a professor of chemical engineering who has run laboratories and supervised student experiments, he realized the remote option could save schools and colleges hundreds of thousands of dollars in the cost of setting up experiments, as well as space to devote to them and additional costs, like insurance.
"Certainly not everyone can invest $200,000 in equipment and have it sit there for three afternoons a week unused," he said.
Spencer understands there are some drawbacks and some experiments are not suited to being run remotely. "There's no question if you have Einstein at your shoulder showing you how to do an experiment, this is a better option," he says. "On the other hand, I ask some of my opponents: wouldn't you rather have students doing an experiment, than not at all?" He envisions other possibilities; for example, inner-city students could learn about ecosystems by interactive study of ponds or other natural areas over the Internet, where a camera is set up at the site.
Spencer also points out that the remote option is an advantage when safety is an issue, such as experiments that involve dangerous or flammable chemicals.
"Some of these experiments are highly dangerous but they can be excellent learning experiences. With the remote option, you eliminate much of the danger."