As a student, what are you looking for? First and foremost, FUN. Come to think of it, we could easily replace “student” with “employee” or “professor” and have it make just as much sense. But just like employees and professors, most students take a very professional view of their studies, too. They want to be well-prepared for their future careers. So, they are looking for a sound theoretical basis on the one hand, and for a – preferably fun – way to acquire relevant practical skills on the other.
IoT backends in practice
When I looked at our IoT curriculum at Aalen University, we already had many courses addressing several layers of the IoT value stack, including hardware development, embedded software, and Java programming. But from my point of view, what was missing was a course on cloud technology. As IoT backends are an integral part of any IoT solution, it is important for students to understand them in order to leverage the opportunities of IoT.
So when I started preparing a new course on “IoT backends”, I asked myself what students should learn from it. Of course, they should gain an understanding of the requirements that the backend has to meet within an IoT solution. And it is important to be familiar with different technologies and to have the competence to choose from among them. It was also clear to me that I needed practical examples and exercises in order to teach these ideas and provide my students with the opportunity to practice.
There are certainly many good tools available that help illustrate the relevant technology. For example, MQTT clients that let you publish and subscribe to demo brokers, or web interfaces where you can try out SQL statements or experiment with REST clients.
But looking at and playing with isolated components does not explain how all this works together in a real-life system. And it does not give students a sense of what it means to work with a scalable system that lets you start additional instances of an app during operation, for example.
Collaboration between university and enterprises
To learn how a real-life system works, it is best to work with a real-life system. I was therefore very happy to receive a positive response when I approached Bosch with the idea of collaborating on this course. Together we developed a really cool setup. The course kicked off with a theoretical introduction and an overview of several IoT backend vendors. Naturally, we also wanted to clearly communicate that there are several vendors on the market, each with interesting value propositions and their own pros and cons.
We worked with a group of 18 students during two blocks of two days each. During the first block the students became familiar with the XDK HW platform, and conducted several exercises on Bosch’s cloud technology. They learned to push an app to the cloud, bind an XDK to a user, and analyze the collected sensor data:
For the second block, the participants had to come up with their own ideas to implement based on XDK sensor and cloud technology. Some of the projects were really astounding. One was an industrial application that reorders parts – screws, for example – as soon as it detects an empty box; another monitors the exposure of firefighter gear to extreme temperatures, so that personnel can be called back before the risk gets too high.
During a final demo session, the students showed off the prototypes they had implemented based on the technology. It became fairly clear that they had enjoyed the hackathon-style way of working, and that they appreciated the opportunity to get their hands on a real-life IoT backend – one that is already being used within many applications with numerous devices connected to it.
Enterprises and universities collaborating
I think that in this course, we truly found an ideal setting for a collaboration between enterprise and university. As I mentioned above, university should teach using real-world production systems so as to provide their students with the relevant capabilities. This can hardly be done without support from industry, especially from technology vendors. At the same time, enterprises have a stake in getting in touch with students at an early stage and hearing their feedback on the latest technology. It’s a platitude, but a true one: the students of today are the customers, partners, developers, and employees of tomorrow.