No-hands science labs

Virtual science labs where students never touch a beaker, Bunsen burner or pithed frog, are becoming a common way for students to learn science. Online labs are cheaper than setting up labs in small schools and provide a wider range of experiments. But do students learn as much in online labs? From the New York Times:

When the Internet was just beginning to shake up American education, a chemistry professor photographed thousands of test tubes holding molecular solutions and, working with video game designers, created a simulated laboratory that allowed students to mix chemicals in virtual beakers and watch the reactions.

. . . In the years since, that virtual chemistry laboratory — as well as other simulations allowing students to dissect virtual animals or to peer into tidal pools in search of virtual anemone — has become a widely used science teaching tool. The virtual chemistry laboratory alone has some 150,000 students seated at computer terminals around the country to try experiments that would be too costly or dangerous to do at their local high schools.

But some say students need hands-on work to learn science. The College Board denies Advanced Placement status to classes with no-hands labs, but is reconsidering that decision. Online students have higher pass scores on the AP exam than students who’ve experienced hands-on labs. Online students may be more motivated to study science, however.

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  1. says:

    The simulation-only approach misses the whole point of sciences, which is: nature is an open book, which you can read for yourself. Conducting an “experiment” by running a simulation model is, in principle, no different from the medieval approach of learning about nature by reading Aristotle.

    This is not to say that simulation models have no place in education. But the proper role of simulation is to do the actual experiment, and compare the results with the results of the model. The model should also be transparent–it should be clear exactly what it is doing–rather than being a black box.

  2. Foobarista says:

    And how are you going to make stuff explode in an online lab? What’s the fun in not being able to play with fire and have stuff fizzle and pop, and turn wierd colors, right in front of you?

    It’s all entirely too sanitary. I’m sure the district’s lawyers approve.

  3. Note also that this change tends to make science less interesting & accessible to those who are better with their hands than with standard academic skills.

  4. Miller Smith says:

    My school system has Virtual Lab for the new Chemistry text in high school. There are ‘real’ labs that take place with chemicals being placed-drop by drop-on paper tables, but the dangerous stuff is all on computer now.

    The fact that the content is learned better by the computer lab students is something to be expected. Nothing goes wrong in the computer lab. Air pressure may be off for a real lab and mess up the results giving the student the wrong conclusion and thus, the wrong lesson.

    One of our chemistry teachers set a young girl on fire last year in a freak accident during a flame test lab. Our system responded with Virtual Lab. And they also instructed all sciencfe teachers to never have students within 10 ft of a flame of any kind ever again. That’s right! No more students ever using a bunsen burner ever again. We no longer hav ea list of forbidden chemicals. We now hav a list of chemicals allowed.

  5. Walter E. Wallis says:

    The last lab I plumbed I had to specify check valves on the gas cocks because students were connecting a hose from the water cock to the gas cock and filling the gas line with water.
    I wonder if any program similates smells? You haven’t really chemisted until you have stunk up the lab. But seriously, I genuinely hope similations do have a dramatic display of consequences, like a wrecked lab or dead experimenters laying around.

  6. Walter E. Wallis says:

    But I want one – where?

  7. Wayne Martin says:

    I managed to get bromine in my eyes during a chem lab in high school. Wasn’t hard at all.

    Not certain I agree with the comment that simulations miss the whole point of “science”. I would depend on the quality of the simulation tools.

    There are some topics in science where folks spend a lot of time looking thru microscopes. Seems that simulating what one sees in a scope can be easily reproduced on a PC. While the experience of examining the object under investigation is one part of the learning experience, the other part is the preparation — which can take a lot of time and equipment. So, for high schools, having lab simulations could easily open a large number of doors which otherwise might not be economically feasible for a given school district.

    If the companies developing these tools are responsive to new ideas and communicate with teachers to determine the strenghts and weaknesses of their tools, the tools should be able to provide most anything that teachers and students need (except that undesired splash of bromine).

  8. “The fact that the content is learned better by the computer lab students is something to be expected. Nothing goes wrong in the computer lab. Air pressure may be off for a real lab and mess up the results giving the student the wrong conclusion and thus, the wrong lesson.”

    And that’s my concern. You don’t learn how to deal with screw-ups. You don’t learn what happens when something goes wrong – which it often does, in “real” research.

    We already have a generation of kids who don’t know how to solve problems because all of the problems have been solved for them. They melt down when they’re faced with an unfamiliar situation because so much effort has been made to sanitize things and make them “100% safe”

    I’m sure lawsuit-fearful school districts are salivating over this, but I kind of wonder about the future…I wouldn’t want a vaccination from a nurse who had had only “virtual” training, and I doubt I’d want a lab-tech who did most of his or her preparatory work by moving pixels, instead of real test tubes, around.

  9. It strikes me that there’s a useful distinction to be made between being a *consumer* of knowledge and learning how to be a *producer* of knowledge. If you do the real experiments for yourself, then you’re doing what Newton (or whoever) did…you’re acting as a producer of knowledge. If you do “experiments” with the software in question, then you are merely a consumer of a pre-engineered experience.

  10. Wayne Martin says:

    > I wouldn’t want a vaccination from a
    > nurse who had had only “virtual” training

    Who would want to fly on a 747 where the pilots hadn’t had many hours of simulator training? I can’t imagine anyone learning to fly such a beast without the use of simulation training.

    For someone who is only taking a course because he/she is forced to (such as biology or chemistry in high school) it’s not clear that any of the “hands on” experience promoted herein provides any real value to the student who will never disect anything again (other than maybe a chicken for dinner).

  11. A physics teacher I had in high school, when asked by students whether something in the experiment they were doing was “supposed to happen” would always reply: “Did it happen?” Student:”Yes”. Teacher: “Then it was supposed to happen.”

    The “what went wrong” aspect of labs is missing in a virtual lab. An important part of labs is deciding how to determine what is wrong and what is right, given that in “real” research, one cannot have predetermined conclusions.