Inspiration

Studying in a university that implements active learning, we have learned the importance of ‘a hands-on learning experience’. Having worked with middle and high-schoolers for more than a year, we learned the importance of getting immediate feedback and working with hardware.

After our summer that involved teaching kids got canceled due to COVID-19, we started thinking about teaching online as vividly as possible, with a minimum reduction in the learning experience of the students.

Acknowledging that Iceland is also following the social-isolation measurements, thus prohibits gathering and requiring 2 meters between each student, make lab experience extremely difficult. Therefore, we are aiming to bring novel teaching environments that do not necessitate such gatherings without sacrificing the hands-on lab learning experience.

What it does

‘Hands-on Labs’ is a set of virtual labs that allows students to observe and remotely control various physical tools online in realtime for their courses. Depending on the curriculum, students can choose among different virtual labs and book a time-slot on the website and engage with the tools as instructed to have a live experience. For a robotics/coding course, for example, once the student’s log-in to the website, they will be able to use a virtual robotic arm, upload their code/input and change the coordinates of the hinges of the physical robot arm and observe the robot arm executing their commands in realtime.

While this experience before COVID-19 would not be possible without gathering in labs, our virtual platform would bring the lab to the students. So that they will learn through a hands-on experience by being able to observe the real-life execution of the code they are writing.

How we built it

Building a fully functional prototype for our project within the allocated time for the hackathon (approximately 72 hours) was an extremely challenging task. Primarily, our goal was finishing four major parts for our project prior to the submission as the following:

1) Run a survey about the idea among students that are currently learning online to get feedback on the product and what students would like to see as a result.

To evaluate whether students at our university who took any computer science classes in the past or future students planning to take computer science classes in the future would want such a service, I designed and conducted a short survey that targets all Minerva's computational sciences students. The short survey that can be found at: https://forms.gle/MgV1MMFpMzUp3Mz59

It takes less than five minutes to complete the survey as an encouragement for students to share their thoughts.

The survey asked straight forward questions regarding the student's learning experience about robotics in computer science classes. And whether they would want a more practical learning experience as a part of that course.

The survey got 24 responses so far, where 84% of the responses indicated that getting the chance to experiment with a real robotic arm would add to their learning experience. Additionally, 50% of all the respondents left an extra comment at the end about their thoughts of the project, where almost everyone highlighted that this project would boost their learning outcomes.

2) Build and launch a website where the idea of the virtual labs is explained and we can list various labs that students can access. Additionally, the website should have a section where institutions wishing to turn one or more of their labs into virtual labs can contact us.

In this step we built and launched a website that acts as the primary front end for all the virtual labs that are hosted. This website can be found at: http://handonlabs.com/

This website was built using Wordpress and is hosted on Google Cloud Platform.

3) Utilize some of the hardware that we currently have access to during quarantine so that it can be accessed online to create a showcase of a demo for a virtual lab.

All the details for this step can be found at this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gJ9Md5eZR6nt-CrmWxHtRdF6eRmCBD4B/view

4) Build and launch a fully functional virtual lab for the robotic arm hardware where students can control and observe the robotic arm hardware in realtime to showcase the concept of a virtual lab.

All the details for this part can be found at this link: https://drive.google.com/file/d/17Cvry5j-9RJ4CB9XFabOOkOcJiGHvBjh/view?usp=sharing

5) Run various tests to ensure that all the various project parts are running smoothly.

We have shown our lab to some of our peers and professors to ensure a smooth experience as well as getting their feedback as users.

We ensured that the robotic arm and the back-end of the project is working smoothly with minimum delay.

Also at this stage we ensured success by considering our metrics that is user-satisfaction and adding value to the online educational experience.

6) Finalize the presentation that we will use to showcase the entire project.

We have highlighted the marketing aspects of our project as well as showing a live demo of our virtual robotics lab.

Challenges we ran into

Due to shelter in place measurements in our location, we only had to use the hardware we already had in the closet without being able to buy any other necessary components, which was a restraining challenge. Therefore, building the robot-arm (both back-end and front-end) in such a short time with limited tools was a harsh challenge that required a lot of sweat and tears.

Additionally, making sure that the software was working smoothly and fully functional by getting timely feedback with time zone differences was difficult as we needed responses from the users in such a short time. Also, since we are only two people while one of us is fully responsible for the technical part and the other was focused on the design aspects, the time was a constraint for us. To be completely honest, we were initially relatively unfamiliar with the Icelandic culture and local challenges; however, finding out that it is an education-centric country that has room for such innovations was fortunate to find out.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

We managed to finish the following: a survey that measures user interest in our project, an online website that is published and hosted on Google Cloud (http://handonlabs.com/), a fully functioning robotic arm virtual lab that is also published and hosted on Heroku (http://www.robotarm.net/), a fully functioning robotic arm hardware that is connected to the server and each of them have proper documentation that is also boosted with the marketing presentation and business plan. Also considering that we are only two people, combining our works like puzzle pieces in terms of the technical and design aspects in 72 hours was a complete success.

What we learned

Regarding the back-end, we have appreciated how modern open-source hardware allows quick implementation that we have used to our advantage. Also, using modern web development tools such as Python, Flask, SQLite, Heroku, Wordpress, Google Cloud, etc. boost and accelerate the process of building web-applications.

Based on our survey to get some feedback from our potential users, we have seen that our idea is attractive to many students, even if they do not study computer engineering.

Based on our researches, we are amazed by the extremely high literacy rate of Iceland! Also based on sociological and historical analyses, the world seems to become more and more online due to COVID-19 which is likely to persist after the crisis.

Lastly, apparently sleeping 3 hours is enough for the human body if you have an exciting idea in mind!

What's next for Hands-on Lab

While currently, the only virtual lab that is live as a demo on the Hands-on Lab is the robotics arm lab; in the future, we are planning to partner with government and private educational institutes to turn their labs into virtual ones as their curriculum allows by hosting them on our platform. Moreover, the labs can be applied to many other hardware tools for different levels of schools, such as 3D printing, laser cutting, Arduino boards, EV3 Lego Mindstorm.

Also, since we are a B2B business, having such partnerships with educational institutes will generate revenue streams that can be used to scale the project thus benefiting a chain of collaborated educational institutions that will reach to more and more students.

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