Imperial College London aimed to find a way for a student with severe health and mobility issues to participate meaningfully and safely in their undergraduate synthetic chemistry laboratory classes ‘by proxy’.
This would be an alternative to arrangements such as videos of experiments or computational modelling which, however valuable, do not fully replicate learning through experiment.
A student – who cannot enter the lab on health grounds – conducted their synthesis experiments ‘by proxy’. This involved verbally instructing a lab assistant in real-time via two-way audio and observing the reactions and processes via a video stream. The lab assistant carried out the instructions given by the student, and waited for these before doing anything – the student participating remotely was in charge, although the assistant knew not to carry out any unsafe procedures.
The lab assistant wore standard safety glasses with a small web camera fixed in the centre. This connected to a raspberry pi computer and battery. A two-way radio link and headsets provided audio, with the student viewing the video via their laptop computer from outside the lab.
The key indicator of success was the experience of the student. They found this experience to be the richest of any experimental laboratory class over the first two years of their course, including those for which they could be physically present in the laboratory. They could participate in this case by being there remotely, but also by being able to direct the experimental work and see it carried out as if they were actually doing it. They saw and experienced the lab in ways they otherwise could not.
It took several iterations to make the technology work. For the video system used, Imperial had to find a way for the raspberry pi in the lab to let the student know which IP address to connect to – or sometimes to reconnect to – so that they could see what was going on. For sound, they moved from a mobile phone to a duplex radio headset pair. Occasionally, because of heavy network traffic, the video and audio would drift apart for a few seconds.
Learning points and reflections
The technology makes this kind of remote participation possible, but the key to it working successfully was the lab assistant, who had to have the patience to behave exactly as instructed, and the experience to judge when instructions might lead to something unsafe and therefore should not be followed.
Making the most of commonly available technology means that this approach would be highly transferable to students with different access needs in different labs.
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