STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) didactics requires not only theoretical didactics, such as lecturing, but also tutoring and practical experiments using physical systems in the laboratory. According to the last Eurostat data  in Europe about 5.9 million of students are attending degree programs where laboratory activities are fundamental. That number must be increased with the workers that are attending STEM Vocational Education and Training (VET) courses or that are in training in companies and enterprises to be hired, or that need to be trained to improve their position or to use new equipment (for example new medical/laboratorial equipment in the hospitals to fight against COVID-19). Due to the global lock-down, most of all didactic laboratories are closed causing a strong inequality in the cultural and professional training of students, that in many cases will miss the formative experience of the practical activities, and delays in the training and professional growth of workers. These problems will persist also after the crisis. After the lock-down the “social distancing” will continue, strongly reducing the availability of the laboratories. Even before the pandemic, often the access to practical experiments for didactics was limited. Some conditions preventing from a wider adoption of learning-by-doing in the lab approach are: Availability of lab instrumentation/ equipment that in some case can be expensive; Difficulty to access to lab instrumentation out of few opening hours; Local unavailability of specific experiences and instrumentation that, instead, could in different towns or Countries; Mobility restrictions, such that we are currently experiencing during the COVID19 pandemic. The scenario is worsened by the unequal distribution of resources in the different European Countries resulting in different education and training opportunities for EU citizens depending on where they live. The Erasmus Plus programs aiming at filling that gap with people's mobility (teachers, learners, trainees) are strongly impacted by the lock-down, thus bringing the situation to pre-EU times.
What it does
We propose a shared remote didactical laboratory at European level where the student can choose to access practical experiments provided by different laboratories. Being a single, well structured, distributed measurement system it would be modular, flexible, scalable and able to serve different communities of educators and learners in the STEM fields in different Countries. The laboratory will not be virtual, however, it will provide didactical experiments with physical devices and instrumentation, provided by the different partners that can be geographically distributed all over Europe and that can include private and public entities. One advantage of the modular structure is that it can start from a single or two experiments from one or two partners and then it can be extended easily to more partners by simply adding modules to form a network of physical laboratories. Examples of disciplines that can benefit from such experiments are (but not limited to): Electrical engineering; Circuit theory; Electronics; Control and Automation; Instrumentation and Measurement; Speech and audio processing; Telecommunications; Energy; Electromagnetics; Physic. The same approach, however, can be applied to remote control of industrial equipment, therefore the same system can be used for distance training of workers on specific equipment. The remote laboratory will be accessed through a web portal. Users accredited by a recognized institution in one of the European Countries will receive credentials to the web portal. After authentication, the user can search among the available experiments, reading a short description of each of them. Experiments are physically provided by all the physical laboratories participating in the project. The web portal will then provide a web page containing the experiment objective description, the task to be accomplished and the remote control of the instrumentation (that can be placed in one of the participating facilities) needed for the practical experiment.
How I built it
The general architecture of the remote shared laboratory consists of a hierarchical architecture, with a single web portal providing the interface to the user. After the user has chosen the experiment to be conducted, he/she will be directed to the physical laboratory providing such an experiment and he/she will get remote control of the equipment and instrumentation needed. A video streaming could be also available if a visual monitoring of the experiment is needed. Laboratories can be geographically distributed. Since all the experiments are provided by a single web portal, the actual location of the experiment will be transparent to the final user. The remote laboratory will be realized by designing a proper web interface. Such interface will allow user authentication through a Single Sign On Server. It will also dynamically build web pages for the experiments, integrating HTML5 elements, allowing the remote control of instrumentation. The remote control will be actually provided by Apache Guacamole servers, which will act as laboratory servers. They will be installed in all the physical laboratories providing experiments. It will be also possible to integrate remote experiments within a Learning Management System (LMS) (e.g. Moodle). This option is useful to integrate the experiment as part of a course or a more complete didactical content. In this case the LMS will interact with the Single Sign On Server, to authenticate the user and with the Web interface which will provide the experiment User Interface.
Challenges we ran into
Main challenges we ran into is the lock-down, we have asked a special permission to enter into the university and develop the experiment. The internet, at least in our region is slow and have remote meeting was not so easy so as to work on shared documents.
Accomplishments that we are proud of
We have accomplished all the goals we have programmed: the framework, the demo, the didactic contents (including the declaration of soft and hard skills acquired with the experience, the video lesson, the report templates and the report example), the business plan, the text pitch, and the video pitch. In the mean while we meet new people, we enjoy the support of several people with their like and comments on devpost, made new friends, found other people with our same wish: help young people in growing, make them independent thinking, give them all the necessary tool to be ready for their professional life and in the case of STEM laboratory is a must. In this emergency case a generation of students can loose this opportunities and this is a source of inequality.
What we learned
We learned to cooperate in few time, with new people and in a remote way. The technologies make short the distance, but the wish to cooperate for a common goal, for the "common good" is still the key!
What's next for European Consortium of Remote Didactic Laboratories
Enlarge it with further experiments. Extend it to other laboratories creating a network of laboratories sharing common rules and structures, guarantying common quality standards and accessible to all students from everywhere at any time. Extend the user interface with virtual reality in order to increase their immersive experience.