Hands-on Labs: Teaching robotics remotely in the midst of a pandemic

by: Ahmed Kamel, Class of 2021 | Mar 17, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently transformed education around the world. Adhering to social distancing guidelines, students have been kept away from classrooms and laboratories for extended periods on an unprecedented scale. For most students, online classes hosted on virtual meeting platforms have failed to deliver an adequate education. However, online learning is not all created the same. While the pandemic has forced many students to experience online learning for the first time, at Minerva Schools at KGI, distance learning is an intentional choice. The main differences — a state of the art learning platform and an intentional pedagogy, both designed using research from the science of learning.

During my first weeks in class at Minerva, I was fascinated by how engaged I was in the classroom. The experience was different from anything I had ever encountered before. For the first time in my educational life, there was no back row to hide from the teacher and no lecture to vaguely listen to. Instead, my classmates and I were engaged in stimulating intellectual discussions, tackling real-world problems in breakout groups, and testing our knowledge through rapid polls. In class, I learned how to think like a researcher, from discovering the right problem answer and learning how to critically extrapolate meaningful results from complex data. However, in order to prepare for a competitive career in robotics, I also needed to gain formal laboratory experience.

Helped by the Student Life and Coaching & Talent Development teams, before the pandemic, Minerva students secured term-time and summer opportunities in laboratories and research institutions to gain formal laboratory experience. For example, during my semester in Seoul, I collaborated on a research project with Hanyang University and Hyundai Motors to discover how they increase factory workers’ efficiency using gamification. The next two summers, I worked as a technical support intern at BMW in Egypt and as a robotics education program instructor for Mistletoe in Tokyo. But with the pandemic, laboratory classes, like most other in-person experiences, have also been abandoned as laboratories and research facilities around the world shut down their internship opportunities.

The lack of access to laboratories is not isolated to Minerva students. In addition to school closures, travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines have prevented all students from accessing research opportunities. But rather than simply press pause on life for a year–or the foreseeable future — I realized lab experiences could still be offered remotely, unrestricted by geographical boundaries.

When the pandemic began in March 2020, my classmates and I were in Buenos Aires under a strict lockdown. Only allowed to leave my apartment for a very limited number of essential activities, I began to think about how students, like myself, could utilize a remote lab from the comfort of their own home. My research led me to investigate the Internet of Things (IoT) as a means to achieve this end. Since IoT can be used to control sophisticated hardware in real-time from anywhere in the world, I formulated a cost-effective means for rapid deployment of remote laboratories in a virtual educational environment, which I named Hands-on Labs.

Hands-on Labs enables students to observe and remotely control a 3D-printed portable laboratory in real-time through an intuitively-designed web application. The application includes instructional tutorials on how to use the remote labs and a reservation system where users can book a time slot to remotely control lab equipment from anywhere in the world. Laboratory instructors have the additional capability of controlling student access and assigning tasks to students.

The first phase of the laboratory includes a remote-controlled six-degree-of-freedom robotic arm. Through the web application, students are able to control the robotic arm by sending motion commands, which the arm executes in real-time. The platform also provides users with a sophisticated level of control over various aspects of the environment, such as lighting levels, camera angles, and audible feedback.

To test Hands-on Labs, my mentor, Associate Professor of Computational Sciences Rohan Shekhar, and I invited students in his Harnessing Artificial Intelligence Algorithms class to experiment with the robotic arm. The first lab participants reported overwhelmingly positive feedback, unanimously agreeing that the lab had positively enhanced their learning experience.

“Teaching students about robotics in a remote environment is a challenge, notwithstanding the pandemic,” Professor Rohan shared. “Until now, we were only able to explore robot motion from a theoretical perspective, but Hands-on Labs has made it possible for students to interact with and control a robot in real-time.”

Building off feedback from the first trial, the next iteration will aim to improve the integration of Hands-on Labs with Forum to provide a more seamless experience for students and instructors. Our overall mission is to be able to meaningfully integrate this technology into a variety of undergraduate courses, not just computational science classes. For example, one potential application can instruct the robotic arm to be used to teach physics students about dynamic systems. In biology class, students can remotely learn how to insert pre-prepared slides into an internet-connected microscope, and applied mathematics students can experiment with algorithmic thinking through their laptops.

Making laboratory experiences more accessible to students is a critical need regardless of whether the world is in a pandemic. I believe Hands-on Labs will be able to bring valuable instruction to any student who is looking to broaden their research experience, such as those who are not able to travel or who live in underprivileged communities. If students can not go to labs, we will bring the labs to them.

Hands-on Labs was awarded first place in the Hack the Crisis Hackathon organized by the Ministry of Education, Iceland. Currently, it is one of four world finalists in the 2021 Microsoft Imagine Cup, chosen out of over a thousand entries from around the world.