Monday, October 21, 2013

Biology eAcademy: SmartSciece and Virtual Labs

Charles Darwin as a young man, probably subseq...
Charles Darwin as a young man, 
probably before the Galápagos visit 
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
An Introduction to SmartScience and Virtual Labs Teaching Commons

Robert Deshamais has been working on online labs since the 90s. He started building PC software and then moving it onto the web. Cal State La is using virtual labs. They are teaching a non-majors with a virtual lab. They are experimenting - in the winter quarter they are doing traditional wet labs and they will compare it with the same sections with the virtual labs. They hired an independent assessor.

Virtual Labs are available online, interactive and hands on, and come in a variety of forms: simulations, interactive video, remote access to real time data, remote control experiments.

Why use virtual labs?
Improve pedagogy: add opportunities for inquiry-based learning, address difficult lab topics (e.g. evolution), allow students to learn from mistakes, better engage students.
Improves convenience
Address bottlenecks - increase section offerings, less demand for limited lab facilities, lower personnel and equipment costs. This can also lower course repeat rates.

Advantages and Disadvantages

  • Improve pedagogy: students can learn by designing and carrying out their own experiments
  • Reduce time and safety constraints
  • Immediate feedback; mistakes are OK


  • No hands on with equipment & methods
  • Simulation results are idealized
  • Lack of instructor to guide students
  • Relies on student self-motivation

Two Labs with Different Approaches
EnzymeLab  - website with a mini manual written around the site - a java applet. It is a simulation that allows students to gather data. It is used in Intro to Biology classes at the college level but also used in High Schools.  Advantages include that students can explore by designing their own experiments. Disadvantages include idealized and cartoonish, yet too much for non-majors.

SmartScience - also written in Java but a more modern program. Includes about a dozen labs. With every activity there is background, warm-up material, and some focusing questions. They play a video and ask the students to form a hypothesis. They can write one or they can supply a hypothesis. They call the video an observation video. They video-taped a wide-variety of experiments with different variables. The students can click on the experiment and gather the data from their own actions.

Virtual STEM Labs Teaching Commons
These are two different tools - the important thing is to choose the right ones for the job. We need help in learning how to choose the appropriate tools.

  • Faculty can share pedagogical innovations
  • Share resources
  • Connect with colleagues

Concerns and Discussion
Instructors concerned included the view that you can only learn science in a lab. But another instructor pointed out that much research takes place in computer simulations. Another view is that wet labs are often just "cook book" classes. Faculty are worried about students cheating. They discussed the accessibility issues.

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