Technology & K-12 STEM Education

Beyond Lab Simulations

A Washington teacher has been using an online simulation program that allows students to experiment liberally with computer design.

Dennis DeBroeck knows his computer technology students have the best intentions when installing mother boards, memory cards, and CPUs in their masterpieces, but sometimes even the most careful of them can wind up destroying valuable equipment during the experimentation process.

"My students need to be able to plug in components and see what works, but doing that in a lab with real hardware can get pretty costly," said DeBroeck, an instructor in media technology and animation at Walla Walla High School in Walla Walla, WA. "Items can easily get broken or destroyed."

Knowing there had to be a more efficient way to get his students hands-on training with computer technology, DeBroeck went in search of an online lab simulation solution. He found one a few years ago and has been using TestOut's LabSim software to teach everything from logic to basic maintenance to computer design and networking ever since.

Using the online lab simulation program, for example, students can "visit" an actual parts shelf, look at manuals, and figure out exactly which video card will be the best match for a specific computer motherboard. Students select the right item and plug it into the computer that's being designed. If the two parts aren't compatible, a red "X" pops up on the screen, alerting students to the error.

"In real life, if someone had grabbed a component that wasn't correct, that item would likely present problems," DeBroeck said, "whereas using the lab on the computer, they're just alerted to the issue, and allowed to go back and correct the problem."

The program also helps DeBroeck keep students on task, both in and out of the classroom. "As society has changed, we're seeing more absences and more students needing extra attention in certain areas," said DeBroeck, who, prior to implementing the solution, was frustrated by the fact that four to five students would miss each one of his lectures. "The next day, different kids would be gone. Pretty soon they would all come back to school and be really behind and out of touch."

Now, those students can remotely access the online labs from home or another location and stay caught up on their assignments and projects. "It's pretty much all online, so, if students want to take their work home, they can," said DeBroeck. The system offers three delivery methods, including text, simulations, and videos.

"Those options have paid off with students, as they have a little different learning styles that they can draw from while staying engaged in the work," said DeBroeck, who installed audio jacks on classroom desktops that students can use with their own personal headphones. "That helps them get into their own worlds and avoid distractions. They can really focus in on what they're doing."

DeBroeck has also used the system with students who spend extensive time away from class, as was the case recently when one of them went to China via a foreign exchange program. "I was able to get him set up to access everything from a computer in China," he said. "The same process can work when students take extended vacations or need to be away for other reasons."

Having remote access to the online lab simulation program also allows students to practice in advance of their classes and without the constraints of limited classroom time. DeBroeck can closely track every student's progress through the system and give assistance where needed, and college credits (through the school's Tech Prep program, which allows them to earn 10 to 15 credits) where warranted.

"I can print off a report and see every completed task, and how much time was spent on those tasks," said DeBroeck. "That report is transcribed right to the college that we work with."

DeBroeck said he hasn't run into any major snags when implementing or using the system but admitted that setting up and maintaining the lab has been time-intensive. "It took time, but I have a really strong system in place now," said DeBroeck, who added that he relies on remote desktop management solution Desktop Authority from ScriptLogic to help manage the lab.

Managing individual students can be a challenge for DeBroeck, who said that his future computer gurus typically work at their own, individual paces.

"They're at all different places in the course," he said. Student questions can range from very simple to extremely complex, and levels start with basic learners and go to "those kids who are born with computers in their hands."

DeBroeck said online labs allow learners at all levels to feel skilled and accomplished, despite their varied degrees of computer knowledge. "No one in the class knows where the other students are, so no one feels out of place," DeBroeck said. "At one end of the spectrum I have kids who learn more slowly, and at the other are those who work fast and who don't [have to] get bored waiting around for someone else to 'get it.'"

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].