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Newswise — A team of students at Michigan Tech have developed a new plug-and-play device that might someday do anything from track local weather to measure the gas mileage on your car. But for now, they think it could be a boon to science educators.
Dubbed the TRIcorder for short in honor of Star Trek's universal diagnostic tool, the Transportable Research Instrument System has three parts: a Palm Pilot hand-held computer to process and display data, a cube to gather that data, and special docking device that electronically links the two other parts and lets them work together.
The heart of the TRIcorder's power and versatility is the data cube. Because it can be fitted with any number of sensors, its applications could conceivably range from medicine to auto repair to meteorology. Its creators think a good place to begin exploring its capabilities is the high school science classroom.
The TRIcorder has a number of qualities valued by K-12 districts, says Nathan Skalsky, president of Michigan Tech's Integrated Microsystems Enterprise, which developed the device. It's portable, versatile, and so simple a Tribble could use it. Plus, it's cheap-under $300 apiece. The estimated cost to equip a 30-student classroom with TRIcorders is $8,700, a fraction of the cost of a conventional classroom computer system.
Here's how it works. The science student puts the appropriate sensor card in the two-inch plastic data cube, sets the cube in an experiment site, and then watches as the data pours into the Palm Pilot. Skalsky demonstrates, waving the cube it over his head. The Palm Pilot screen shows how fast his hand is accelerating and even registers the cube's temperature change from being held in Skalsky's warm hand.
Admittedly, most high school students would consider that a pretty lame experiment. So, the students have developed alternatives.
"You can put the data cube in the nose cone of a model rocket, fire it off, and it will send data wirelessly to the Tricorder, which can tell you how fast it's going, how high it gets, and show you if its about to crash into the ground."
"[The TRIcorder] allows teachers to ignore the mechanics of a scientific concept and just teach the concept," Skalsky says. "You put the cube in a hamster wheel (minus the hamster) and roll it around, you can run around the track with it, you can just let it sit there, and you get real-time data."
Because of the escalating cost of real science experiments, educators have seen a push toward using CD-based virtual experiments. "This is our minor attempt to slap the people behind that movement on the wrist and say, 'You don't need to do that,'" Skalsky said.
This fall, the Integrated Microsystems Enterprise will bring the TRIcorder to local school districts to try out in science classrooms.
"We want to see what features are used, and what people try to do with it and can't. You can learn a lot from that."
Even without a field test, the TRIcorder is attracting attention.
The idea and its projected cost caught visitors' eyes during a recent conference in Taiwan of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the leading professional organization of electrical engineers.
"Eight people placed orders, or tried to, which is a bit premature but encouraging nonetheless," Skalsky laughed.
Michigan Tech's Enterprise program brings together teams of students to solve industry problems, address engineering challenges, or, as in this case, to brainstorm and develop new technologies.
Michigan Tech (www.mtu.edu) is ranked among the top 50 public universities in the country by U.S. News and World Report. The university has one of the largest engineering programs in the country and offers quality programs in the sciences, business, communications, forestry and environmental science.