UP team develops low-cost science lab for public high schools

By Ike Suarez

Public high schools in the Philippines may soon be able to afford an instrumentation system — hardware, software, sensors, and experiment modules — which students can use for their laboratory experiments in various science subjects.

UP associate professor Ranzivelle Marianne L. Roxas-Villanueva, a member of the project staff, presenting the VISSER project during one of the press briefings called by outgoing UP president Alfredo Pascual to publicize the university’s scientific outputs

UP associate professor Ranzivelle Marianne L. Roxas-Villanueva, a member of the project staff, presenting the VISSER project during one of the press briefings called by outgoing UP president Alfredo Pascual to publicize the university’s scientific outputs

Making this possible will be the VISSER or the Versatile Instrumentation System for Science Education and Research developed by researchers at the Diliman and Los Banos campuses of the University of the Philippines.

The system intends to address one problem of the teaching of science in Philippine high schools where 80 percent of the country’s secondary education students are enrolled, the lack of laboratory equipment for the teaching of various disciplines in science such as biology, chemistry, and physics.

Private high schools will also have the option to purchase units of the VISSER system when introduced into the market as well as colleges and universities which will be able to tweak it for their peculiar science and engineering teaching needs.

The UP National Institute of Physics (NIP) in Diliman is now pilot-testing the lab in 20 public high schools, three campuses of the Philippine Science High School (PSHS) included.

Areas where the VISSER system is being pilot-tested are Bulacan, Metro Manila, Mindoro, Davao City, Iligan and the PSHS campuses in Goa, Camarines Sur, San Ildefonso, Iloocos Sur, and Davao City.

All of its components – hardware, operating system, and applications – were developed on the open-source electronic platform Arduino.

The open-source platform was developed 2005 at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Milan Italy. Plans for the circuit boards of Arduino hardware are freely available for downloading at the Arduino website.

Because the plans are published under the Creative Commons License, capable circuit designers may copy and improve upon them for their particular needs. The same applies for the Arduino IDE downloadable, also from the Arduino website.

As a result, the VISSER system will be affordable to the country’s public high schools whose science laboratories, if they have any, must make do with outdated or improvised equipment. As a result, the teaching of science subjects is not as effective as they should be in imparting scientific concepts to students.

The VISSER system will be available sometime this year or 2018, its release into the Philippine market depending on agreements arrived upon between the UP NIP and the would-be manufacturer (a local one) who will be mass producing it.

The implementing body for the project is the UP NIP with the university’s National Institute of Chemistry, National Institute of Biology, Natural Institute of Environmental Sciences and Meteorology in Diliman and the National Institute of Mathematical Science and Physics in Los Banos participating.

Making possible VISSER’s development was a grant from the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) and the UP Office of the Vice President for Academic Affairs (OPVPAA).

UP associate professor Roxas-Villanueva (center) with her project teammates

UP associate professor Roxas-Villanueva (center) with her project teammates

The teaching of science through automated test and virtual instrumentation require expensive and imported equipment for students to use. Moreover, each experiment often requires a particular piece of equipment and accompanying laboratory module.

This has made such equipment beyond the reach of the country’s public high schools. Such has been greatly responsible for low scores by most of their students in science achievement tests.

To greatly help remedy this situation, the project to create VISSER was launched in October 2012. Development of the hardware, a modification of the circuit board plans of the Arduino microcontroller hardware was finished that year.

But since the designated number of modules eventually reached 120 from the original 60, a few more years took place before they were completely developed.

The modules involve experiments in biology, chemistry, physics and engineering. In biology, the experiments include botany, zoology, physiology and environmental science. In chemistry, these include general chemistry, gasses, chemical equilibrium and thermodynamics. In physics, these include mechanics, electricity and magnetism, heated temperatures and optics. In engineering, these include series and parallel circuits and capcitators and diodes.

The VISSER hardware consists of multi-channel plug and play analog and digital sensors that run on Arduino microcontroller. This microcontroller acts as the “brain” on which various sensors can connect to it for control of experiments in various science subjects. As such, it can be powered by a battery or a power bank.

On the other hand, the software applications consist of data storage, control, user-interface, and analysis tools. Since the software is open-source, its users will be able to tweak them as well as have them copied by others wishing to do so.

With regard to the laboratory modules, these were described as “very descriptive manuals for user guidance in doing experimentations and in providing theoretical basis for the results.”

The microcontroller can be used in two different operation modes: standalone and data logger.

As standalone, the microcontroller can function as clock/stopwatch/timer, ruler, weighing scale, digital thermometer, barometer, pressure sensor, force sensor, camera, audio recorder, DC voltmeter, magnetometer, inclinometer, and 3-axos accelerometer.

As data logger, the microcontroller can do simultaneous data acquisitions from more than six inputs with time-start and up to 56,000 times per second sampling rate.

UP associate professor Ranzivelle Marianne L. Roxas-Villanueva, one of the members of the project staff, was not able to disclose the total amount it spent to develop the project.” She said around 20 personnel took part in VISSER’s development. She named NIP’s Dr. Giovanni Tapang as the project director.

Other scientists involved and their respective disciplines were the following: Dr. Rommel D. Gomez (physics), Professor Nelio C. Altoveros (physics), Dr. Ranzivelle Marian C. Roxas-Villaneuva (physics), Dr. Gay Jane Perez (environmental science), Dr. Paul Leonard Hilario (physics) Dr. Imee Su Martinez (chemistry) and Dr. Sonia D. Jacinto (biology).

The development team said the NIP is still in talks with the would-be manufacturer on the price per unit of the microcontroller. However, a check online indicated that the lowest price is $50 per unit.

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