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New Grant to Fund Virtual Lab

October 5th, 2017

Two NIU technology professors are creating a realistic online lab to equip undergraduates with the skills to develop renewable energy systems and to interest high school students in renewable energy.

Associate professor Liping Guo and professor Andrew Otieno of the Department of Technology were awarded a grant in June by the National Science Foundation to develop an interactive virtual lab. The primary goal of this web-based lab simulation is to give students a space to conduct experiments on a renewable energy microgrid simulation, using energy sources like solar and wind to power a household. A secondary goal is to interest and engage high school students in renewable energy and other STEM fields.

“[In the lab] students can look at a particular season and how much power can be harvested from a solar panel,” Guo explained. “How do we regulate that power? How do you improve the efficiency of the system? It’s just like doing a hands-on experiment – just through a computer platform.”

Guo and Otieno said they expect to spend the next two years building the virtual lab, designing and building a scaled-down smart grid prototype to accompany it and developing demonstrations and experiments for the platform. By the third year, they expect NIU undergraduates to begin using virtual lab experiments in their course work and high school students to access the lab on visits to NIU.

College students will use the lab to measure, detect and control the flow of power from harvesting components like wind turbines and solar panels to the household power grid. High school students’ exposure will be less technical; they’ll see the lab demonstrated and then can play with the values and see how they impact the total system.

Not only will the virtual lab be less expensive to build than a hardware-based lab, but it will also accommodate more students and will be scalable so new experiments can be added as technology advances. It combines cutting-edge research with class work that is currently scattered throughout the curriculum.

“There is no single laboratory experience incorporating all of these topics relevant to students interested in the area of microgrid,” Guo said. “We plan to make the virtual laboratory very interactive, along with creating the actual hardware platform, to inspire students interested in these topics through experiments.”

College students will mentor high school students through outreach activities using the system, Guo said, further building the project’s goal of student engagement. The researchers also hope to use the lab to develop a series of computer modules to teach precollege students about renewable energy technology.

This progressive approach, building on students’ knowledge from high school and then throughout their undergraduate career, is key to developing a workforce with both the hands-on knowledge and the research skills to compete globally.

The project builds upon a previous NSF-funded initiative in which NIU students built a solar tracking system that was then used by undergraduates and high school students to conduct experiments in renewable energy. That grant ended in 2016.