During an iLab involving the study of radiation, a high school student remotely manipulates a geiger counter based at the University of Queensland in Australia. (John Bohan, Northwestern University)
For teachers seeking to provide their students with real-world lab experience and access to scientific equipment, a free program called iLabCentral offers the next-best thing: remote laboratories accessible online (iLabs). “Remote labs are an important new tool to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) learning and teaching in traditional, online, and blended classrooms,” says Kemi Jona, director of Northwestern University’s Office of STEM Education Partnerships, which partnered with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Educational Computing Initiatives to develop iLabCentral. “My goal…was to create a single, easy-to-use site [where] teachers and students could…access remote labs relevant to their classes [because] most remote labs are difficult to locate, and teachers don’t have the time to waste searching for these resources,” he explains.
Though Jona and his team developed the program’s web interface and student and teacher materials, iLabCentral’s equipment is housed at facilities like the University of Queensland in Australia, which makes its remote labs available 24/7. Equipment includes a dynamic signal analyzer, used for data recording and processing; a neutron spectrometer, used to determine the energies of neutrons and the relative intensities of neutrons of different energies in a neutron beam; and transistors and other microelectronics devices. Mark Prosise, a high school science department chair from Lake Villa, Illinois, says when he heard about iLabCentral, “my interest was immediately piqued by the fact that students could access a device remotely, program it, and gather authentic data.” He believes iLabs “enrich instruction by allowing the students to engage and interact firsthand with an engaging computer-based system.”
Teachers can choose from biology, chemistry, physics, and math iLabs, which are available for middle school, high school, and undergraduate students. For example, “the Radioactivity iLab is a great way to bring nuclear chemistry into your curriculum,” observes Tanya Katovich, a high school teacher from Schaumburg, Illinois. “My students loved learning about cell phone radiation, and the results of their experiments impacted how they use their cell phones.”
“iLabs differ from simulations in that students are controlling a real piece of equipment and getting real data back to analyze,” Jona points out. “Our research studies have shown that students prefer remote labs to simulations, care more about the quality of their data, and want to run a remote lab again more than a simulation. All of these factors are critical in teaching scientific inquiry skills.” In addition, remote labs “provide students in underserved areas with access to expensive lab equipment their schools might not otherwise be able to afford,” he notes.
“iLabs allows me to teach content in my class and use time at home for working on labs,” says Katovich. “I can have my students create and run labs multiple times. I can present more curriculum because of the time iLabs saves me.”
“Another advantage is when a student is absent, he or she is able to do the experiment, and I do not need to take the time to set things up for a second time,” says Mark Vondracek, who teaches high school physics in Evanston, Illinois. “I have had students who took it upon themselves to do multiple runs of the iLab in order to improve their statistics and results. The iLab also allows students to work independently, instead of in the usual lab groups for experimental work.”
While remote labs can’t replace all labs because “there are still important skills and techniques to learn with physical equipment in front of a student,” he believes “there is still a need to allow students to experience remote experimentation since it is used by professional scientists and engineers.”