Virtual labs challenged in correspondence classes

By Keane Richards
Sun Star Contributor

The Faculty Senate is considering a motion that would limit core science courses to those with physical labs. Under the terms of the motion, distance-delivered courses with virtual labs would not satisfy the core requirement.

To fulfill the UAF bachelor’s degree requirements, students must complete at least two core natural science courses, chosen from an extensive list that includes atmospheric sciences, biology, chemistry, geosciences, marine sciences and physics. Currently, the majority of core science classes have hands-on labs, while the same course offered electronically to rural campuses does not.

Rainer Newberry, a professor of geology and geophysics who proposed the motion, argued that science is “not about memorizing factoids,” but about doing. “It doesn’t have to be taught that way, the same way as swimming doesn’t have to be taught in the water,” he said, but “how much do you want to compromise?”

Newberry cited a lab from his GEOS 101 class, in which students make lava by melting volcanic rocks in a superheated oven. Watching a virtual jar pour a liquid on a computer screen is quite different. “Can you spill? he asked, “Can the jar break? Students need to realize that things don’t always go the way they should, that explosions occasionally happen.”

“Occasionally,” he smiled.

Jonathan Dehn, a volcanologist and Faculty Senate president, agreed with the point of the motion but thought it was too restrictive. “What would be better would be to set up some criteria for when a virtual lab is appropriate and when it is not,” he said. “There are cases where you could have a virtual lab. But they are not designed to replace the hands-on experience that a student needs.”

The issue brings light to how to properly deliver distance science courses in general.

“UAF is caught in a bind, because on one hand, by rule of the Board of Regents, all of our core has to be available to everybody, including [to students] at rural sites. And actually doing so is some combination of expensive and not of the same quality,” Newberry said.

The best solution, he said, would be to bring distance students to one of the UAF campuses, even for just a week. Students could then participate in labs with their instructors. He acknowledged that money is the biggest obstacle to that option. Dehn proposed taking the lab to the students.

“Maybe we could have a professor visit a rural campus. I think that would be an interesting approach,” he said.

While most students do enjoy making lava and occasional explosions, UAF student Blake Eggemeyer, who is taking his first course with a hands-on lab this semester, disagreed with a blanket ban on digital labs. Eggemeyer has a strong background in computer science, and has grown to appreciate “virtual” experiments. “To me it shouldn’t matter whether the lab is virtual or not. If it’s not lab-like enough, it shouldn’t be a lab. I’m sure there could be very good virtual labs,” he said.

Whatever the final decision on virtual labs is, it is not likely it will be made quickly. The motion was referred to the Curricular Affairs committee. The motion is not on the agenda for the next meeting on Feb. 1, but “It’ll definitely happen before the end of the semester,” Newberry said.

Newberry said the end result will probably be a compromise. Dehn didn’t think there would be much opposition to the final version. “If it’s well thought out with a series of criteria I think it will sail past,” he said.

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1 Response

  1. Harry Keller says:

    The virtual versus hands-on lab debate contains complexities and subtleties that few appreciate. As a result, the debate becomes too polarized.

    Students, whether remote or not can benefit from virtual labs if, in the words of student Eggemeyer, they’re sufficiently “lab-like.” Sufficiency in one class or for one group of students may not match sufficiency for another. What works in one course may not work so well in another.

    Add to this discussion the fact that many hands-on labs merely provide experience in equipment manipulation, and you have an interesting debate. Certainly, those considering a career in the given science should have as much lab time as possible. For the rest, not so much.

    What does “lab-like” mean? Does it mean you wear a lab coat while doing it? I think not. For those not pursuing a career in science, I believe that “America’s Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science” (ALR) really hits the mark.

    You should not spend the time or money on doing labs unless they provide valuable learning experiences not available in ordinary class work (lectures, demonstrations, textbooks, videos, etc.). Labs can do a few things much better than other activities. Unless your lab focuses on these things (or you’re a science major), you shouldn’t be wasting time on the lab.

    1. Understanding the naturo of science.
    2. Developing scientific reasoning skills.
    3. Appreciating the complexity and ambiguity of the work scientists do (empirical work).

    The third item above, according to ALR, can ONLY be done in a lab. ALR defines a lab experience as one that uses data from the “material world.” in other words, simulations need not apply. It makes sense to use the ALR guidelines to define “lab-like.” The National Research Council committee who wrote ALR consists of some very experienced and knowledgeable educators.

    So, if simulations are out, what about virtual labs? Not all virtual labs are simulations. To take an extreme example that most people understand, NASA’a Mars Rover project is virtual science. After all, no scientist is on Mars touching the Martial soil. Data do not arrive in real time.

    Given some prerequisites, prerecording real experiments and providing them to students with appropriate software would be “lab-like” in that they would meet the ALR goals and requirements.

    Therefore, the issue becomes not whether virtual labs can be used for remote, or even for local, students but which virtual labs to use. If they don’t support the three goals above and/or don’t use real data and provide individual student data collection, then they aren’t worthy. And that’s why so many professors fight them. They’ve seen nothing but simulated animations masquerading as labs.

    Once they’ve seen that students can do real science investigations of the real world virtually, then they’ll accept at least some virtual labs. Add in some at-home style labs (safe and inexpensive using readily available materials), and you’ll have a science course for all but the science majors in your school. Perhaps, this blend of good virtual labs and at-home hands-on labs could even be used for a first-year course for some science majors, but that’s another discussion, and, in my opinion, the jury’s still out on that one.

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