Monday, October 20, 2008

Alternative to Virtual Labs: Don't Do Them??

Chad Orzel blogs at He discusses the use of virtual labs in AP science courses. In the end, he suggests that "I should also note that there's a clear alternative to teaching AP classes via "virtual labs": don't teach them. It's not the end of the world, after all."

In an earlier paragraph, he explains his position.
"In the end, though, I think that computer-based exercises are no real substitute for actual lab experience. Unless, that is, you can program the computer to have something really bizarre and inexplicable happen in one out of ten simulated experiments... Some of the chemical reactions should fizzle, some of the pigs being dissected should be missing vital organs, some of the physics data should just be screwy. That's what science is really like, after all."
Of course, he's speaking strictly of simulated science labs. Having the fake stuff he mentions doesn't really resolve the problem of simulations as lab substitutes. Here's a few of these problems.
  • Errors of science. Sometimes, a simulation will produce results that are simply inaccurate and misrepresent the real world. Let's face it, programmers make errors and so do software designers.
  • Precise results. The extreme precision (and accuracy) of simulation incorrectly gives students the impression that scientists work with the same sort of data. All a scientist has to do is ask the right question to probe the secrets of the universe. Nothing could be further from the truth, and students should not be misled.
  • Cartoons. The objects that students see in simulations are generally drawings and convey a cartoon-like quality. Students can be forgiven if they don't believe that what they're doing relates to the real world.
  • Failures. Simulated experiments always "succeed." Of course, the results are determined by an equation or algorithm and may not match real world data. Still, much learning can take place when an experiment doesn't quite work out. In a classroom, there's often not enough time to explore a failure. In virtual classes, students can look into the problem more deeply.
We've ended up with dueling professors. On one side, they argue that virtual labs have many benefits, especially for those in underserved areas. On the other, they argue that students arriving in college with no real lab experience are unprepared even for first-year, let alone second-year, science courses with their labs.

Wouldn't everyone like to have the best of both worlds? How many AP science students go on to take second-year science courses anyway? Wouldn't a one-semester lab-only course fill any gaps a student had in lab technique and safety?

I can tell you that you can have it both ways and at low cost as well as safely, efficiently, and effectively. Simply find an appropriate mix of hands-on labs (the inexpensive, safe kind) and prerecorded real experiments in a virtual setting with software that provides a highly interactive environment for collecting personal data.

My own answer can be found at Curricula using this technology have passed College Board audits for all three AP laboratory sciences.

© 2008 by Paracomp, Inc., U.S.A.
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