Like any faculty member teaching a course with a lab component, Jesus del Alamo has to deal with gear that’s been broken by students.

In his case, the gear is the transistors he uses to teach how the reality of transistor function compares with the theory. And the problem usually crops up on assignment deadlines. “If an assignment’s due at 10 a.m., most of the students will be taking their measurements the night before,” he says. “And what happens is, somebody blows up one of the transistors at 2 a.m. So when I come in, I have all these emails from students saying they couldn’t complete their assignments.”

Del Alamo’s next step is to replace the bad transistor — again, just what any other faculty member would do, except that no student has been anywhere near the equipment.

So why the problem? It’s because del Alamo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, runs WebLab, one of the first teaching labs in the world where the equipment is real but students’ interactions with it are online.

It works like this: Del Alamo has set up eight transistors in a lab two floors down from his office. The devices are linked into a sophisticated instrument that can regulate their operations. And that instrument in turn is connected with a server which students can access remotely.

“Our software provides a simplified control panel for the instrument that appears on the students’ screens, and a manual on how to program the instrument,” explains del Alamo.

The software includes some constraints — you can’t order up a 1,000-volt surge through one of the transistors’ terminals, for example. Still, notes del Alamo, “Somebody will always find a way to blow one up.”

PART OF A PARTNERSHIP

The faculty member emphasizes that WebLab isn’t a substitute for hands-on projects but adds that space constraints, safety issues, costs and other hurdles make it impractical to create a full-scale lab for every course.

“The classes I designed this system for are on the physics of transistors,” says del Alamo, “and until WebLab, we simply couldn’t offer our students a lab experience.”

Del Alamo is convinced WebLab helps students. James Hardison, a junior electrical engineering and computer science major, agrees. “It takes you from just seeing pictures and reading theory in a textbook to working with a real device,” says Hardison. “And you don’t have to go out at some ungodly hour because you haven’t done your lab assignment yet.”

WebLab is part of the I-Campus program MIT has launched in partnership with Microsoft. Soon to come are other systems that will let students do lab work online. Among them are Web-linked chemical reactors and heat exchangers, both from the Chemical Engineering Department. There are even plans to put sensors on the Killian Court flagpole so civil engineering students can test the effects of wind and weather on the structure.

But it’s no accident del Alamo launched the first of these innovative labs. At MIT since 1988, he’s long been focused on how to teach better. It’s also true, though, that he didn’t start out his career with the goal of becoming a noted educational innovator.

A HANDS-ON GUY

Del Alamo received his bachelor’s degree at a university in his native Spain and his Ph.D. at Stanford. His first job was with telecommunications giant NTT in Japan. When MIT came knocking with an offer of a faculty position, though, he was intrigued.

“The EECS department was creating a very strong micro-electronics program,” he says, “and I was attracted to being part of that.”

The job’s teaching component wasn’t a major factor in his decision, but he soon found he liked that element, too. “I have a lot of admiration for MIT students,” he says. “They’re going to have a great impact on the world, and that makes teaching them an exhilarating experience.”

Del Alamo won several teaching prizes, including his department’s prestigious Louis D. Smullin Award. But he wasn’t satisfied — especially given that he couldn’t offer a lab experience in some courses. “I’m a hands-on type of guy,” he explains, “and I feel strongly that you shouldn’t just learn the theory but apply it.”

As he watched the Web evolve, del Alamo became intrigued by its potential. Happily for him, he had students who shared his enthusiasm.

Not being a computer scientist, he entrusted much of the task of developing WebLab’s core software to one of his undergraduate research assistants, Lane Brooks. The student, since graduated, was a sophomore at the time. “I really believe he’s a genius,” del Alamo says of Brooks. “He came up with an architecture for the system that’s just fantastic.”

Del Alamo’s current priority — again with extensive student help — is building the pedagogical infrastructure to make WebLab still more effective. One example is software that lets him monitor how students are doing from pretty much anywhere, including his home. “They can show me the measurements they’re taking and the results they’re getting,” he says, “and I can help them get it all to work out.”

He’s also deciding what to do about the growing stream of requests from all over the world for collaborations. Del Alamo isn’t sure which schools he’ll choose as partners, but does have some personal criteria in mind. “One of the things I’d like to do,” he says, “is to help offer a lab experience to students at universities in developing countries that can’t afford to set up a system like WebLab.”