New project promotes virtual science labs, despite skepticism

[From The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Wired Campus blog; the iLabCentral site is here]

December 10, 2009

New Project Promotes Virtual Science Labs, Despite Skepticism

By Jeff Young

Atlanta — Can online science laboratories replace the experience of sitting at a lab bench with beaker in hand? No way, say many professors. But Kemi Jona, director of Northwestern University’s Office of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Partnerships, argues that virtual labs are at least as good, and in some cases better, at teaching students concepts to prepare them for modern laboratory research.

He’s a leader of iLabCentral, an effort by colleges to share their high-end scientific instruments with professors and high-school science teachers over the Internet to support virtual science labs. The project is run by Northwestern and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and supported by a $1-million grant from the National Science Foundation.

In a presentation to leaders of the Southern Regional Education Board here Wednesday during its meeting on emerging technologies, Mr. Jona demonstrated the system, performing a laboratory experiment about detecting radiation. He gained access to a Webcam pointed at a Geiger counter  in a lab at the University of Queensland, in Australia. He entered a few simple instructions via a Web-based form, requesting that the Geiger counter take measurements at three different distances from a radiation source. A minute or two later, the instrument shown on the Webcam buzzed to life, moving to each of the assigned settings and taking the readings.

“This is our experiment,” said Mr. Jona. “We submitted that.”

That particular lab exercise is designed with high-school students in mind. Some of the experiments in the iLabCentral project are aimed at college students.

Mr. Jona said the system gives students access to equipment they might not otherwise get to tinker with. And instructors don’t have to spend time setting up or cleaning up after the experiments.

He noted that many organizations and professors are still not convinced that lab classes can be done virtually, but he is trying to change that. He plans to meet with the College Board soon to try to persuade them to accept virtual labs in their Advanced Placement courses.

“The high-school science lab of the future is this,” he said, holding up his laptop computer.

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