Remote Experimentation on a large scale - The Open University

Background

The Open University is a world leader in modern distance learning and teaching methods which enable people to achieve their career and life goals in academic study.

Recently we were approached by The Open University to work on a remote experiment project for a new module on practical physics. Part of this project involved providing students with remote-control access to real equipment located in one of the OU's campus-based labs. The first experiment to be tackled was on "Compton Scattering".

Compton’s Nobel-Prize-winning experiment on the scattering of photons by electrons is repeated in many undergraduate labs. The conservation of energy and momentum are applied to a relativistic analysis to relate the rest mass of the electron to two experimental variables: the angle of scatter and the energy of the scattered photons. The angle of scatter is easily measured by a detector on a rotatable arm. The spectrum of detected X-rays is recorded by a swept threshold, pulse height analyser.

Requirements

To a create a remote access experiment out of this for the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory we combined control of target orientation, detector angle and settings of the detector/pulse height analyser with control of X-ray source. A webcam was included for the user LabVIEW interface. The basic bench-top hardware was a laboratory Compton scattering set up manufactured by Leybold. The final system was based on a Runtime app that was sent to registered students. We also supplied a booking system so that pairs of users, connected by phone or Internet, could complete the experiment collaboratively, with each able to take control and each receiving data files for offline analysis.

Results

Our remote access Compton Scattering software was used with about 100 students in 2012 and almost twice as many are expected in subsequent years. The users reported positively on the excitement felt while controlling the kit and experimenting, for real, at a distance using the virtual control interface supplied by Avazia.  During 2013 the experiment will be placed in The OpenScience Laboratory, an OU platform developed through a £1m grant from the Wolfson Foundation. This project is guided by rigorous research and will inspire students and transform access to the world of practical science.

Used in this project

Software

LabVIEW

Hardware & Interfaces

Leybold-Didactic X-Ray scattering unit

Skills

Creation of LabVIEW control interface, access control, data acquisition and data transfer, LabVIEW development.