PLAYING WITH LIVE WIRES ON THE WEB
High school and college physics students enjoy the hands-on wiring of circuits in the lab, but they could try out many more connections if the systems could be built and operated electronically. Such experiments - done on real circuits, and producing real data - can now be set up and monitored on the Web with the "Interactive Electronics Laboratory" developed in the UIC College of Engineering. The college's department of electrical engineering and computer science and the Institute for Mathematics and Science Education are cosponsoring a symposium for Chicago-area high school physics teachers through Aug. 4 on teaching electrical circuits with the IEL.
The IEL does not perform virtual experiments but real ones, and it has real-world counterparts, says its developer, David Naylor.
"It's similar to software used for equipment control in factory automation," said Naylor, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at UIC. "We found we could take cutting-edge industrial technology and use it as an instructional tool for high school physics."
The IEL is a remote-controlled physics laboratory. It includes a selectable assortment of circuit components and monitoring instruments, "all permanently connected on a big switching matrix," Naylor said.
The goal, said Naylor, was to find a way for engineering students to perform lab experiments on their own schedules, and to supplement, not replace, traditional hands-on experiments. But Naylor says the system has many advantages.
"It's fast!" he said. "In about 20 minutes on-line, from home, students can build and test as many circuits as they could in three hours in the lab."
Such speed also helps the students learn design. "We can challenge student groups to put together a circuit that achieves certain goals," Naylor explains. "We can compare the different groups' solutions, and note their similarities."
The IEL is downloadable free to educational institutions. Most institutions don't just want the software, Naylor said, but a whole curriculum, which is now under development. The physics teachers learning to use the IEL in the summer workshop are helping develop new experiments and approaches, Naylor said. "We want them to become familiar with the power of the technology and see how they can incorporate it into their classrooms."
The first version of IEL was released in 1998. Naylor's group is now working on a new generation of software with a more flexible user interface and the ability to handle a broader range of hardware. They have applied for a patent and are examining commercialization with UIC's Intellectual Property Office.
With 25,000 students, the University of Illinois at Chicago is the largest and most diverse university in the Chicago area. UIC is home to the largest medical school in the United States and is one of only 88 national Research I universities. Located just west of Chicago's Loop, UIC is a vital part of the educational, technological, and cultural fabric of the area.
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