MIT pioneers online lab in microelectronics

March 7, 2001–Cambridge, Massachusetts–Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) students now can test and probe fragile, microscopic electronic structures via a novel online lab that can be accessed from dorm rooms and other convenient locations 24 hours a day.

“If you can’t come to the lab, the lab will come to you,” says Jesus del Alamo, principal investigator for the project and a professor in MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “What’s wonderful about WebLab is that it offers such enormous economies of scale, while also allowing for true ‘hands-on’ experiments without the logistical shortcomings of ‘traditional’ laboratories.”

Microelectronics device characterization was a natural candidate for remote access through the web, reports del Alamo, because the devices are small and can be measured very quickly. Up to eight transistors or other devices can be tested on WebLab at any one time, which allows WebLab to be deployed in different subjects simultaneously and provides redundancy against transistor blowup.

This past fall, WebLab was used by about 120 MIT students in three concurrent courses. During its busiest hour, WebLab handled 13 users running 99 different experiments. Even at this busiest of hours, del Alamo reports that the average total execution time for each job from the moment it was received by the server was about 16 seconds. The students were able to access and characterize the latest and fastest state-of-the-art microelectronics technology through a version of WebLab installed by del Alamo’s team at Compaq’s Alpha Development Group in Shrewbury, MA. They took remote measurements in real time, on semiconductor hardware being used by Compaq’s engineers to design leading-edge microprocessors. Students downloaded and studied the data. As a result, they were able to compare the hottest technology with a more mature one available through the main WebLab at MIT.

“Through this exercise, students could appreciate the staggering progress that has taken place in microelectronics technology in the last 10 years. The educational pay-offs are unprecedented,” says del Alamo.

Equipment for WebLab was donated by Agilent Technologies, AMD, and Intel. WebLab is a project of I-Campus, an alliance between academia and industry for cooperative research efforts in technology-enhanced education.


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