There are several microcontroller boards availaible – all come with several interfaces for I/O and programming of the MCU flash. However, if you are into distributed systems, the required board should be a networked system. While it is possible to buy several MCU boards and wire them together, this comes with several disadvantages: the cost for several boards, the delicated and error prone wiring for the networking and the inconvenience in addressing each board via a seperate USB or serial interface.
Therefore, we developed a development and test board featuring several Atmel AVR microcontrollers, a bus system and several I/O devices (among them there is a 7segment display, an LCD display, a small light bulb, a fan, several LEDs and a temperature and luminance sensor) on a single board. We used this board primarily in a lab course entitled embedded systems engineering, therefore we named it embedded systems engineering, or for short, ESE-board.
Ok, but integrating a number of MCU and actuators onto a single board would not make the thing fancy – the interesting stuff emerges from the integration of these components. The printed circuit board allowed for some extra wiring between the components, which we used to support a monitoring mode that can be used for exam situations. Here the students have to implement a small embedded program interfacing some of the devices in order to fulfill some task like correctly dimming the light bulb. The interesting thing is that another embedded device checks the correctness of the solution and gives immediate feedback.
Besides for exam situation, the very same approach can be used for gathering feedback remotely and displaying it on some distant computer. This means you can work on real hardware although not being personally in the lab.
Learn more about it in A. Kößler, “A Platform for Teaching and Researching Distributed Real-Time Systems”, Master Thesis, Vienna University of Technology, 2009