Tennesssee Tech Engineering Students Work with Florida Students Via the World Wide Web

Although he stands in front of the classroom at Tennessee Technological University, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering Jeff Frolik can only see half of his class.

Because, well, the other half of the class is seated in a classroom hundreds of miles away at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

The USF students can see his work and what he is discussing thanks to "NetMeeting," an Internet conferencing program that enables one person to share applications, voice and video with another person in an entirely different city, state or country Ð all with just a PC, internet connection and a simple Webcam, a mini-video camera that connects to the computer.

"NetMeeting is not only is it cheap Ð actually free -- but it has been a way for us to have control over the technology and not have to depend on others to coordinate the TTU-USF link," explained Frolik.

While distance learning is part of TTU's regular curriculum and continues to grow, Frolik and his class, with Dr. Tom Weller at USF, are the first in Tennessee Tech's Engineering Department to venture into building and constructing a project with team members from out-of-state Ð a wireless sensor that can be used to, for example, count cars.

"Our system was co-developed by students at both universities," Frolik said. "TTU is primarily responsible for the wireless link while USF is primarily responsible for the sensor. Teams then must collaborate via email or WebBoard (a Web page devoted solely to these students and this specific project) or other ways to ensure that the systems work together."

With just the Webcam, TTU and USF students learn "alongside" each other in the most cheapest and simplest of ways with few problems, Frolik said.

"South Florida had been looking at Internet streaming (in which sound and video is transmitted over the computer like a radio), but we found it wasn't very feasible because there was a 20-second delay," said Frolik.

"But with the NetMeeting, power point slides everything can be seen quite clearly and the audio delay, while not noticeable, is not detrimental. However, sometimes, when the Web is very busy, the audio and video can be broken up a bit."

Once a week, TTU and USF students joined together across the Internet in learning about microwave systems and wireless sensors as part of a project to design and build a sensor system that will count cars to be used for traffic control. After drawing up designs, building circuit boards and antennas, the teams from TTU and USFwould then package up their work and send it to the other site for additional work.

"I have particular interests in communication systems, which nobody at South Florida does, and Tom Weller, whom I've worked with in the past, has a strong background in microwave devices that is not available at Tennessee Tech," Frolik said. "And using the Internet in this way is a good way to trickle our joint research collaboration to undergraduates."

"The students seem to really like being exposed to new subject matter in this way. This is just one way to get expertise to TTU not presently available, and vice versa."

While the Webcam has become a part of pop culture these days, with scores of people broadcasting their daily lives onto the Internet or sending live pictures to family members far away, TTU and the USF find using the Webcam and NetMeeting a cheap and reliable way to relay educational information that will help students after they graduate and find engineering jobs.

"By using this technology, we are teaching students how to work in teams with people at remote locations," said Frolik. "What we are doing here is a very realistic scenario in the work force."
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