Contact North (2013) The Colorado Community College System Sudbury ON: Contact North
Contact North has been developing a series of posts on institutions that are ‘game-changers’ in online learning. The latest describes the Colorado Community College System’s use of remote labs for teaching experimental science in first year college physics, chemistry and biology courses.
Remote labs are different from simulations in that students conduct experiments in real time by controlling lab equipment from their computer desktop. Through the use of video cameras (which a student can control remotely), students can observe the experimental conditions in real time, control the equipment from their desktop, and download the data from the experiments to their computers during the experiment. There is usually a lab technician present who helps set up the equipment, but students are responsible for operating the equipment, collecting data, and interpreting the results.
Student’s computer screen: top right is what the student sees through the microscope, bottom right are control buttons for the microscope image, and top left are control buttons for moving the microscope in different directions
In the Colorado Community College system, all 13 colleges have a common first and second year science curriculum. The remote labs currently constitute about 10% of the experimental work required but could grow to as much as 30-50% as more equipment and more experiments are added. There is a booking system and students can usually complete an experiment in 30 minutes. Currently there are approximately 50 students doing physics experiments this way, 100 doing chemistry, and 200 doing biology experiments per semester. Most of these students require foundational science courses in order to take professional programs in health or similar fields. For students taking first year science courses online, the rest of the experiments are done using home kits.
The advantage of the remote labs is that students can work together in real time, if remotely, and can access more expensive or higher quality equipment (such as more powerful microscopes) than they could get in a home kit or even in a small college’s physical lab.
The project has received major funding within the USA, but the main costs in developing the web-based software to operate the equipment and to design the student interface has now been done, enabling more equipment and more experiments to be added at a much lower cost. The project is now intending to expand further remote lab nodes in British Columbia and Montana and these nodes will serve students in other states such as Alaska and Wyoming.
Are remote labs ‘real’ science?
The remote labs were originally developed by instructors in two small colleges in British Columbia, North Island College and the College of the Rockies. However, in BC, science instructors in the colleges are not using the remote labs, and in Colorado, the universities have not yet accepted remote-lab online science courses for credit transfer.
Thus ‘mainline’ science instructors are questioning whether experiments conducted remotely are ‘real’ science. Having personally observed the remote experiments being conducted, I am surprised by this. Students can see and do as much if not more than they would conducting the same experiment in a physical lab. Perhaps even more importantly, major breakthroughs in science, such as the Mars Rover and the Hadron Collider at CERN, depend essentially on remote control and sensing. Furthermore, the existing remote experiments constitute less than 10% of the experimental curriculum, far too small an amount to raise objections about credit transfer or articulation, especially since these students are not going on to become research scientists.
The objections of science instructors to remotely controlled labs reminds me of how the teaching of laboratory science was invented. In the 1860s neither Oxford nor Cambridge University were willing to teach empirical science. Thomas Huxley therefore developed a program at the Royal School of Mines (a constituent college of what is now Imperial College, of the University of London) to teach school-teachers how to teach science, including how to design laboratories for teaching experimental science to school children, a method that is still used today, both in schools and universities. Science teaching today is (ironically) not God-given but an artifact created in the context of the 19th century. Remote labs are not something less than ‘real science’, but an extension of basic scientific method to the context of today. Get with it, scientists.