In 1998, electrical-engineering professor Jesús del Alamo was teaching transistor physics to both undergraduates and graduate students, and he was getting frustrated. “Neither of the two classes I was teaching at the time had any lab component,” del Alamo says. “I thought it was very important for the students to have a chance to measure the characteristics of these transistors in simple circuits and evaluate to what extent what we were telling them in class is actually what they see.”
MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratories had a single piece of equipment that could perform those measurements: a semiconductor parameter analyzer that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Granting each of the 80-odd students in del Alamo’s undergraduate class a half-hour alone with the machine was impractical, so he enlisted a student to help him put it online. A little more than a decade on, that relatively modest exercise in networking has expanded into a program called iLab, run by MIT’s Center for Educational Computing Initiatives (CECI). The program seeks to make MIT equipment accessible to outsiders and, perhaps more important, to provide other universities with tools for creating their own networked experiments. So while college students in Saudi Arabia will soon be using the system to make measurements using a neutron beam from MIT’s nuclear reactor, high-school students in Illinois are using it to access a radioactive-decay experiment in Australia, and universities in countries from Asia to Africa are using it to grant neighboring schools access to their own equipment.
Creating a system flexible enough for such a wide range of uses required a lot of early trial and error. Although the current version of the iLab software can grant users real-time control of distant lab equipment, the first experiment, for del Alamo’s transistors class, required students to upload lists of measurements to be performed on a device hooked up to the analyzer. “If the lab report is due Friday at noon, most students actually perform the lab–and they’ve charted this–between 1:00 and 5:00 a.m. on Thursday night,” says Jud Harward, associate director of CECI. So if the device blew out in the early morning hours, students were left stranded. One of the first modifications that del Alamo and his student collaborator made was thus a “switching matrix” that let them hook as many as eight devices to the analyzer at a time. “That allowed us to build redundancy,” says del Alamo, “so we could have two or three samples of the same device to be used in a given assignment.”
Soon, del Alamo’s team began thinking about adapting its approach to put other MIT equipment online. “We realized that this very first system that we put together was very much of a homemade, completely custom system,” he says. “We thought that we really needed to start from scratch with a standardized architecture with a very modular design.” With support from the iCampus initiative, which had $25 million in funding from Microsoft to investigate innovative educational techniques, they went to work.