Stanford student creates pocket-size science lab

Clifton Roozeboom watches the organized chaos before him – dozens of middle school students performing somersaults, cartwheels and ballerina-like spins. At first glance, it appears to be nothing more than a group of excitable teenagers, except each of them has a little device attached to their midsection with masking tape. This device is gathering data that conceptualize and simplify otherwise complicated math and science concepts.

TI AvatarThe device is the PocketLab, a product that started as a homework assignment.

In late 2013, Clifton’s technology commercialization professor at Stanford University handed the Ph.D. candidate an assignment: Build a business plan and explore potential markets for a new product of your own creation.

Clifton quickly found a large gap between the equipment being used in science and math classrooms all over the country and the state-of-the-art technology available on the market.

“We could fill this need to have an experimental, hands-on tool that is intuitive for students to use and convenient for teachers to have in their classrooms,” said Clifton, founder and CEO of PocketLab.

He dreamt up a device that acts as a “science lab that fits into your pocket,” complete with six sensors, including an accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope, barometer and temperature gauge.

With the technology commercialization class complete, Clifton saw an opportunity to take his assignment beyond just a school project. He entered his business plan into a few competitions at Yale University and Stanford and won enough prize money to build a prototype.

In the first few months of 2014, Clifton constructed PocketLab as a compact, durable and wireless device. He started beta testing it with students from middle school to college age, perfecting the technology and algorithms and creating an app that will be available for the iPhone/iPad, Android devices and Chromebooks. Clifton redesigned PocketLab for manufacturing, including our Bluetooth Smart CC2541 wireless microcontroller as the brains of the product with the capability to wirelessly transmit data and our TPS62732 ultra-low-power converter for voltage regulation.

“TI provides a great starting point for development, including the reference design and firmware, which was a huge leg up when we were starting our development,” Clifton said. “And the TI E2E forum is very active — a lot of users contribute. Ninety percent of my questions already had answers on the forum, and there is good support for my questions that no one had asked before."

TI AvatarClifton continues testing PocketLab, which brings us back to the middle school near Stanford. The students finish their acrobatics and are all huddled around a set of iPads. Clifton is teaching them about angular rotation — a concept more likely to be found in advanced high school Physics than an eighth grade class.

As they were spinning and somersaulting, PocketLab measured the rotations per minute of a ballerina spin and the degrees per second of a somersault. The students compare the data to their original hypotheses about how fast these measurements might be and if they are constant or variable.

“Different students learn through different methods,” Clifton said. “Some can learn straight from the book, some can learn from examples and diagrams. However, I think that even for people who can understand in those ways, it’s not as exciting as attaching the concepts to something very physical, seeing it in real time and connecting the actions to quantifiable data.”

Clifton hopes to see PocketLab as a part of science and math classes throughout the country and believes home schooled children could benefit from it, too. It’s available for preorder now for $98 per unit and includes an app, cloud software and 25 experiments to get students started.

“I love engineering and building things,” Clifton said. “This is where I get the most professional joy. This was very much an opportunity to share my love and joy that I find in science and engineering with a younger audience, and one that might not otherwise connect with engineering concepts.”