Capabilities of NANSLO Nodes
NANSLO currently has two established science lab – one node located at Red Rocks Community College in Arvada, CO and managed by Colorado Community College System (CCCS) and one node on Vancouver Island in British Columbia managed by North Island College. A third science lab will be available in the future in Great Falls, MT and managed by Great Falls College Montana State University. We refer to the laboratory facilities as "nodes" on the network.
The following scientific equipment is available at one or more of these nodes:
The air track is a laboratory device for producing almost frictionless linear motion over a distance of about one and a half meters. The motion of "gliders", special light aluminum forms that move on a cushion of air only thousandths of an inch thick is observed. The track over which the glider moves is a perforated tube of diamond-shaped cross section; air is pumped into the tube at one end and exits upwards through many tiny holes along the two upper surfaces of the track. Ideally, the air does not impart motion to the gliders, but uniformly supports them just off the track surface; the gliders are therefore free to move on the track, to collide with each other and with elastic bumpers at the ends of the track, to be pulled and pushed by string and pulley systems, and so on, with very little friction. Many different experiments are possible, including some in which the entire track is placed at an angle with respect to the horizontal to study forces in two dimensions; the exact experiments are not discussed here.
One of the main concerns with using the air track is properly handling the gliders which are made of the same aluminum as the track itself. Improper handling of the gliders when placing them on or removing them from the air tube results in burrs or scoring of the track. The sharp corners of the gliders can score the track surface, and a scored or burred surface can in turn damage the glider surfaces. Because this process is managed through robotic operation, the results delivered are very accurate.
Another concern when performing air-track activities is whether the track is level. The tedious activity of ensuring that the track is level is taken care of by the laboratory staff, which frees the students to collect data and focus on the analysis of that data. While there is probably some pedagogical utility to having students spend 30 minutes leveling the track, we think their time is better spent in doing the actual activity.
The microscopes used in the NANSLO lab facilities are highly capable systems that can be completely controlled from a computer, and therefore, remotely. They incorporate slide-loader systems that can hold a total of up to 200 slides for the student to select remotely. Additionally, they can provide up to 1000x magnification when used with an oil-immersion lens. Incorporating a high-resolution 5 mega-pixel camera that allows direct viewing of the slide currently under the objective, they enable the student to gain extremely clear images of extremely small structures on the slide. Because the slide stage itself is remotely controllable, the student can examine any area of the slide that they wish.
A spectrometer is an instrument used to measure properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, typically used in spectroscopic analysis to identify materials. The spectrometers currently available in the NANSLO lab facilities are useable in the Ultraviolet and visible range of light energies. When connected to a cuvette holder, light can be directed through a cuvette containing a liquid sample and allow measurement of how much light is absorbed by the sample. The absorbance of light can be used most simply to determine the concentration of the light-absorbing material in the cuvette. If desired, the analysis of which wavelengths of light are absorbed can be used as a method to identify the material itself. In addition, if a light-emitting sample (like an electrified gas sample) is placed in front of a fiber optic probe that is connected to the spectrometer, the identity of the sample can be determined by examining the wavelengths of light that are emitted.
While nearly any camera could be used to enable viewing of the laboratory and equipment, we have decided to use high-quality Sony cameras that can be remotely controlled by the student. They can be adjusted in the horizontal (pan), vertical (tilt) and can also be zoomed in for an extremely tight view of whatever the student wants to examine. In fact, in many cases, the use of these cameras can provide a better view of some small details than could be achieved by a student who was physically in the lab and using only their eyes.
Two types of robotic equipment is currently in use in the NANSLO facilities. One is the instantly recognizable robotic arm, which can be used to pick up and place equipment and materials with high precision. The others are screw-drives and rotating tables that can be used for positioning equipment horizontally or vertically, again with very high precision.
Of course, many computers are needed for operation of the remote labs, including servers and internet appliances, etc. However, at the heart of all of this is National Instruments’ LabVIEW software, which is what allows remote control of equipment, robotics and cameras through a web interface. The software that allows this access to occur from nearly any computer platform (Windows, Macintosh, iOS, Linux, etc.) and which constantly monitors and optimizes the connection between the student’s computer and the RWSL, is Citrix XenApp.