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Infrared rays ‘count’ number of students in lecture halls

Since this week, five lecture halls are equipped with a small box that can measure the hall’s occupancy using infrared rays. The eventual goal is to make more efficient use of TU/e’s teaching facilities. Until now the students are counted manually. For now, this new way of measuring is a pilot during the first quartile, and when the results turn out to be sufficiently accurate, eighty halls will eventually be fitted with the equipment. The numbers won't be used to evaluate courses.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

When you look up at the entrance of Lecture hall 3 in the Auditorium you will see a small, white box. From now on this box, which transmits infrared rays, will be used to measure the number of people present. When someone enters the hall, the device adds a number; when someone leaves, it subtracts a number from the total of attendees. At night, the counter will be reset to 0 again. Auditorium 16, MetaForum 7 and 8, and Atlas 0.825/0.820 are now equipped with similar boxes.

Cancelled lectures, presenting course material in less time than planned, and a lower student attendance than expected are fairly common occurrences today. The result: empty lecture halls, or a smaller hall might have sufficed as well – and this in a time when TU/e already grapples with a serious shortage of space, a situation that will only become increasingly critical in the next few years according to every prognosis.

Efficient use

Several different solutions to the problem of the expected shortage of space are being looked into, one is a more efficient use of the larger lecture halls in particular – because they are the most serious bottleneck when it comes to scheduling. Till now student assistants have been counting the number of students, using camera footage of lectures. But that method leaves something to be desired when it comes to accuracy – if only because they don’t have an overview of the entire hall.

Project manager Peggie Rombout and Jim Bergmans (policy advisor at Education and Student Affairs) emphasize the fact that the counts are anonymous. Bergmans: “The only thing that matters to us is that we want to be able to measure the hall’s occupancy more accurately. Several teachers feared that we would use the numbers to evaluate courses, but that certainly isn’t the case.” Rombout adds: “Counting is completely anonymous, and people aren’t recognizable anyway, that’s not possible with infrared.”

Suitable system

Finding a suitable system wasn’t that easy, the two project members say. The counting systems used in retail or in airports turned out to be ‘alarmingly expensive,’ and other universities don’t have a similar system at this time.

An evaluation of this pilot follows after the first quartile. If the counts turn out to be sufficiently accurate, about eighty centrally scheduled teaching facilities will be equipped with the device. The count data will be analyzed and, combined with the prognoses and student enrollment numbers, used as input for the schedule for next academic year.

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