Thursday, April 3, 2008

Got Science Lab?: Virtual Labs and Experiments

The push for stronger STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) instruction has led to a greater demand for hands-on laboratory experience in secondary education. But as P. R. Guruprasad writes at Techlearning, some rural schools and urban schools, especially those in the developing world, lack physical lab space and equipment. Virtual labs and experiments online help level the playing field and also offer individualized pacing and instruction that can be hard even in the best physical lab. In developing countries or financially-strapped school districts in the U.S., virtual labs may be the best or only lab space students have.

Guruprasad writes about Denise Carpenter, a middle school teacher in Chicago using a virtual lab module for a physics class. She uses the module as a training tool before students do any hands-on work. Virtual labs are also great as in-class demonstrations. A quick search turned up a sampling of sites offering virtual lab space or experiments:
  • Virtual Physics Simulations provides links to "computerized simulations of physics principles." The simulations require Shockwave. The simulations come as Java Applets, Shockwave demonstrations or worksheets that require Adobe Reader. The best are those that offer animation or allow students to interact with variables and see the results. With links about machines, light, momentum, waves, electricity and more, there's a lot to choose from.
  • The ChemCollective offers a Virtual Lab Simulator (in five languages). At the link for instructors, you can find a list of ready-made activities, including virtual lab problems that feature a simulation of a wet chemistry lab and scenarios that apply chemistry concepts to real-world problems. There are also simulations and tutorials. The documentation page has a lot of advice and guidance for using the site and its offerings.
  • IPPEX (The Internet Plasma Physics Education Experience) offers interactive Shockwave physics modules. (These need not only Shockwave but Flash.) There are modules on matter, electricity and magnetism, energy, and fusion. On IPPEX's home page, students can link to the Ask a Scientist site maintained by the Argonne National Laboratory.
  • The Virtual Lab page hosted by HHMI (the Howard Hughes Medical Institute) has five special labs for online use:
    • the Transgenic Fly Virtual Lab in which users can create "a transgenic fly to study circadian rhythms";
    • the Bacterial Identification Lab that identifies bacteria via DNA sequences;
    • the Cardiology Lab that focuses on hereditary heart diseases and lets users act as "a virtual intern" accompanying a doctor on rounds;
    • the Neurophysiology Lab that allows interactions with neurons;
    • and the Immunology Lab that focuses on antibodies and how they function.
  • There's also Net Frog that offers online frog dissection with learning modules and links for teachers and students.
Some of these labs and simulations are too much for middle schoolers to run themselves. But all of them are great tools for making abstract concepts in chemistry, biology and physics and their real-world applications visual and accessible. How do you use virtual labs and simulations in your science classes? What are the downsides? Which are best for middle school? Are these better than science videos that show processes but don't allow interaction? Do these kinds of tools engage even reluctant students? How useful are these in homeschooling?

SOURCE: "The Many Virtues of the Virtual Lab" 4/1/08

photo courtesy of ARTS, used under this Creative Commons license

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