The current version of the iLab system has three components. One is the computer that controls the experimental setup. Another is the user interface, the software on the computer of the person accessing the apparatus. The third is the service broker, which mediates between the other two, scheduling access to different iLab equipment around the world. Communication between parts of the system must adhere to formats specified by the MIT iLab team, but otherwise, developers have a good deal of latitude.
At Makerere University in Uganda, one of three African universities in the program, iLab development has become part of the curriculum. Like other early participants, Makerere initially used the system simply to access MIT equipment. In much of Africa, however, Internet connections can be erratic, and Makerere students with lab assignments due couldn’t always get online.
With support from iCampus, del Alamo and his collaborators had already begun investigating low-cost equipment that universities without MIT’s resources could use to create their own networked experiments. They had homed in on National Instruments’ Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite (ELVIS); the size of a deluxe Scrabble set, it contains electrical components and software that let it emulate devices such as oscilloscopes or function generators. Already inexpensive by lab equipment standards, it has been offered at steep discounts to the African iLab universities.
In 2007, Sandy Tickodri-Togboa, an electrical-engineering professor at Makerere, visited MIT with students who had been performing experiments on del Alamo’s analyzer, and the iLab team introduced them to the ELVIS. Since then, seniors in Tickodri-Togboa’s classes have designed new iLab experiments for the device as their final projects. In the spring, the students accompany him to Cambridge, where the iLab team helps them iron out kinks in their software. By the next fall, the new experiments, in such fields as digital signal processing and telecommunications, have been incorporated into undergraduate coursework.
Tickodri-Togboa says his students are enthusiastic about iLabs. “Their predecessors passed through the university without doing a single experiment, or just doing one experiment if they were lucky,” he says. Graduate student Olayemi Oyebode ‘09 noticed similar excitement when he spent three weeks in January helping students at the three African universities configure the iLab software to allow people to do experiments with the ELVIS. “The big thing for a lot of them was the fact that ‘we’re usually dealing with theory,’ ” he says. “And at some point, theory just gets boring.”
The flexible design of the user interface has proved surprisingly important, says James Hardison ‘02, a researcher at CECI who began working on the iLab project as a UROP in 2000. Some users are technically sophisticated and want precise control over the apparatus; others are high-school students, who need intuitive ways of visualizing what an experiment demonstrates. Those with limited bandwidth want spare control systems that download quickly.