Wednesday, July 29, 2009

iLabs - Working to Improve STEM Education and Level the Playing Field

Just over one year ago, Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) collaborated and won a $1 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop the iLab Network. This is a network of university groups from around the world that will develop and implement remote experiments that are accessible over the Internet. Students from anywhere around the world with Internet access will be able to make use of real equipment to get actual data from the experiments. Teachers and students can request accounts at

High school science programs tend to have traditional equipment, with some relatively small number of electronic sensors, from companies such as Pasco or Vernier, but the sensors are for fairly basic measurements and applications, such as temperature probes, voltmeters, pH meters, and so on. It is difficult to do sophisticated experiments that require hardware that is much too expensive for a high school to afford. Besides a lack of equipment, time is also a major factor for high school science labs because it is difficult to do involved measurements in a 45-minute period. But colleges tend to have such equipment.

Many college courses have made use of remote labs for the past decade. This was in part to save class time for moving through material and allowing students time to collect data remotely on their own time, and often from their dorm rooms since it was online. Lab reports could then be completed over some given time period and turned in either with hard copies or through email. Only recently has the effort to put more sophisticated and interesting experiments online for high school access been made, and the iLab Network is ready to be at the forefront of this effort.

The first experiment to have a full curriculum and access for high school students is the effect distance has on radiation intensity. Many high schools do not have radiation sensors such as Geiger counters, let alone strong radioactive samples. An experimental setup at the University of Queensland, Australia, has been used by my classes and those of several of my colleagues in a pilot test, and students have been able to collect real data (as opposed to computer simulated data, which likely would have been used had it not been for the iLab) in just a few minutes, analyze it, and do fits of the data (typically with MS Excel) to determine the mathematical relationships between counts of radiation and distance between the strontium-90 source and the Geiger counter. Students are able to design the experiment around their selection of several parameters of the hardware, such as the distances to be used, the number of trials, and the exposure time of the Geiger counter to the radiation for each trial. Once an experiment is submitted and runs, it takes only minutes to finish and have an Excel file with the data available. Students can submit their experiments any time, and even if they are not online the files will be saved in the student's account for future access.

Other iLabs being developed include neutron spectroscopy (using a neutron beam from a nuclear reactor at MIT), a shake table to simulate earthquakes, various advanced circuits analyses, polymer crystallization, and a heat exchanger experiment. All of these are not possible in high schools, although they deal with highly interesting and engaging topics. And the vast majority of high schools do not have major research universities in their neighbohoods to conveniently and physically access the equipment necessary for these experiments. But remotely, everyone will have a chance, whether they go to school in a wealthy suburb, the inner city or in a rural community. I am personally excited by the prospect of evening the playing field for science classes in all communities. Having taught at an inner city school for several years, I can appreciate the opportunity iLabs will be presenting to science programs and their teachers and students.

One other aspect of these remote labs I want to point out is that remote experimentation has been vitally important for a number of scientific disciplines for years. High energy physics and nucelar physics have had researchers from around the world be able to access hardware and the collected data, and biologists, geologists and meterologists have used remote sensors and experiments in the field for years. This is a common experimental and analytical process for professional scientists and engineers, and the technology is filtering down to high schools, providing students with new opportunities to investigate topics that were once limited to books, lectures, and an occasional computer simulation that provides only theoretical, ideal data. iLab data is real, physical data, just as scientists would collect and need to analyze, complete with statistical uncertainties and the 'noise' of reality.

I look forward to continuing to work with the iLab principals for the benefit of students around the world, and I am curious as to what will be the next batch of remote iLab experiments. Check out other articles in the online Converge magazine, an NU press release, and Evanston Now.

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