Science Labs: Virtual Versus Simulated
Over the last decade or so, numerous articles have appeared that conflate the ideas of a virtual science lab and a simulated science lab. For example, the College Board, in its guidelines, says, "A virtual lab is an interactive experience during which students observe and manipulate computer-generated objects, data, or phenomena in order to fulfill the learning objectives of a laboratory experience." (College Board, n.d., p. 4) Yet, the computer need not generate the objects, data, or phenomena as numerous remote experiments done every day by scientists show.
The University of California, in its "a-g" requirements, specifically forbids the use of virtual science laboratories, and the New York State Regents require 1,200 minutes of hands-on laboratory instruction. Despite an increasing body of evidence that a well designed and implemented virtual science lab experience can provide good learning opportunities, these two bodies are resisting any virtual lab experience at all, no matter what its merits may be.
The apparent reason for such a powerful force opposing virtual science labs comes from two sources.
1. Early virtual labs were simulations that had a distinctly cartoon-like appearance and feel. Scientists can hardly support students performing investigations into a cartoon as a substitute for a true scientific investigation.
2. Because the only virtual labs were also simulated labs for a long time, the two words became synonymous for many people. Thus, these people prejudge the appropriateness of any virtual lab because they expect to see a simulated lab.
Consider the actual definitions of these words and how they apply to a scientific investigation (or science lab experience). These definitions are taken from the Compact Oxford Dictionary.
- Virtual: not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.
- Simulate: imitate or reproduce the appearance, character, or conditions of.
A simulation uses algorithms (including equations) to create apparent but unreal objects, data, and/or phenomena. These fail to duplicate the real-world aspect of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work.
Not all simulations use computers. For example, a popular simulation used in many classrooms employs colored beads in hands-on mode. Students physically contact the beads and manipulate them. They stand in for DNA, which the students do not touch. This activity is not a hands-on experiment; it is a hands-on simulation.
Scientists do use simulations but as a means to test models or to suggest direction to their research. They do not take and analyze simulation data as though it were real. Pilots and surgeons use simulations in training, which has a very different purpose from scientific investigations.
Simulations may play an important role in the science classroom by allowing visualization of difficult concepts and exploration of scientific models, including their limitations. These are not science lab experiences, however.
A virtual experiment uses data mediated by a computer. These data may originate from simulations or from the material world. The former are virtual simulations and do not fit the definition of science laboratory experiences as described in America's Lab Report.
"Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science" (National Research Council, 2005, p. 3).
The latter may be very valid and appropriate science investigations. Material-world virtual experiments available today fall into three categories.
Large Online Scientific Databases
Students use the Internet to acquire data from these databases, which they manipulate and analyze to make discoveries about the scientific area from which the data originate. Examples are genome databases and astronomical databases.
The major limitation of this mode of scientific investigation is that only a limited number of topics are accessible because of the limited number of large online scientific databases available to students. Additionally, students are not making their own measurements, except in rare cases, such as GalaxyZoo.org, an ongoing, open-participation astronomical database in which volunteers input data for scientific research.
A new area for online exploration opened up about ten years ago when MIT instituted the iLabs program. Students can register with iLabs and perform experiments on equipment costing over $100,000. They set the experimental parameters and observe the output just as they would in the physical presence of the equipment. Because the output is digital, it appears on the computers without requiring special translation.
The major limitation of this mode of scientific investigation is that experiments so far appear to involve electronic equipment with no moving parts. A vast area of biology, chemistry, and physics is unavailable to this approach, at least for the present. In the case of the Mars Rover program, scientists have remote experiments that do use equipment with moving parts. Thus, in theory anyway, such experiments may be available at some time in the future.
Prerecorded Remote Experiments
These experiments have all of the advantages of remote experiments without the difficulties of having live, online, programmable equipment to run the experiments. Any experiment that can be run for the collection of data can become a prerecorded remote experiment.
Because they're prerecorded, these experiments can be run only for a number of parameter combinations that have been stored in a server. More experiments stored means wider exploration possible by students. It's possible to store many runs using exactly the same parameters and present them by random selection so that students have a more perfect emulation of a traditional lab experience.
Because some of the experimental runs may fail owing to equipment problems (leaks, misalignment, etc.), students have to recognize the failure and run the experiment over, providing important experience in analyzing and understanding data.
Perhaps the sole limitations of this mode of scientific investigation are that students have only modest ability to perform and implement experimental design and they don't experience the kinesthetic aspects of doing hands-on experiments.
Any of these approaches to virtual science labs can benefit from some opportunity for physical hands-on investigation with real experiments in the material world. Such investigation provides opportunities for experimental design (and correcting mistakes in that design) and for feeling and smelling the materials and equipment.
Combining modest hands-on experiments, especially student-designed "kitchen" labs, with prerecorded remote experiments within a single pedagogical structure should deliver an excellent science learning experience. Furthermore, this experience can be far superior to typical hands-on labs performed in science classes throughout the country.
Only widespread prejudice against virtual labs currently prevents the wide use of this style of science learning experience in thousands of classrooms across the nation.
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College Board (n.d.) Retrieved April 19, 2008 from apcentral.collegeboard.com/
National Research Council. (2005). America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science. Committee on High School Science Laboratories: Role and Vision, S.R. Singer, M.L. Hilton, and H.A. Schweingruber, Editors. Board on Science Education, Center for Education. Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
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About the author: Harry E. Keller is president of ParaComp Inc., operator of SmartScience.net, which provides virtual lab services to K-12 and higher education. He received his Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia University and his B.S. in chemistry from Cal Tech. He served as the chair of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society and as an assistant professor of chemistry. Later, he held management positions in the computer industry. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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