An understanding of science is important, right? Think for a minute what would be essential in any science course. It’s not that we’re setting out to create a world filled with scientists. No. We want people who are ‘science literate.’ Sure, some of them will go on to pursue careers in various scientific fields but the real goal is to prepare people for life in a world in which one powerful way of knowing is through methods that are termed ‘scientific.’ So what should we put into a science course? Let’s take physics, for example (my comfort zone, sorry). At the high-school level you would certainly consider a study of topics such as:
- Motion, including Newton’s Laws and Momentum;
- Work, Power and Energy;
- Electricity and Magnetism;
- Modern Physics (Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Nuclear Physics, etc.).
All of this could be handled through lectures, watching videos, doing practice (and rather ‘mathy’) exercises and, for us oldsters, just plain curling up with a book. The problem is, by themselves, these topics skip so very much that is important in the pursuit of science. They are, in fact, more the products of science; scientific knowledge. There’s so much more. Things like:
- Understanding the relationships between Science, Technology, Society and the Environment (In educational jargon we refer to this as STSE).
- Adopting attitudes that support the development of scientific literacy.
- Learning the various skills associated with scientific methods.
These are not things that can be learned effectively in in the ways outlined above. Students need to interact with the physical world, to make conjectures, to test these ideas, to put together experiments, to refine their methods, gather data then analyse and interpret it and then communicate the findings.
This brings us to the whole topic of labs.
People often ask me, “Do distance education students do labs?” So, starting with the assertion that a distance education course has the very same outcomes as one done in the traditional face to face manner, there can be only one answer. Yes, the courses must have labs.
But what about guidance? Equipment? And, most importantly, safety? After all we have no choice but to use things that are very hot, very cold, caustic, sharp, pointy, heavy and often just plain icky. Oh, and it’s distance education—we’re not there in the room.
Simple—we just waved the magic want shot the magic bullet or something and it all happened easily enough. And it’s perfect!
Well, no, not exactly. The fact is, getting labs done has been one of the biggest challenges we have faced and the solutions are difficult, require a fair bit of work and are complex. But, yes, we do get them done.
The first science course we put online was grade eleven physics. The development work was done during the spring and summer of 1992. My office mate, Lloyd Gill wrote the handbooks with technical assistance from Leon Cooper. I put together the slides that were used on the telewriter (we called them telewriter pages and they were loadd onto disks then shipped to the sites were they were transferred to the hard drives of the telewriters. We could remotely bring them up and write over them using a digital pen. Hey–this was before the Internet but we did not let that stop us!) and Frank Shapleigh put together a lab manual, based primarily on the Digital Interfacing summer institutes he had conducted throughout the province in the summer of 1991. They were amazing, but we expect that from Frank. During the summer of 1992 Frank, Lloyd and I, with the assistance of the Department of Education’s video production team, produced a series of VHS demo tapes that gave the students the demonstrations we would have otherwise given live (waves on a string, beats, Doppler effect, motion, geometric optics, etc.) as well as guided demos that showed, in detail, how to do the labs. Wilbert Boone (who oversaw distance education as well as curriculum development) was also successful in obtaining federal government funding that provided our project with the digital interfacing equipment required to do the labs. That left us with this situation:
- The course had 13 labs. Several of the labs had more than one method. For instance, the ‘work energy theorem’ lab had method A (a photogate was used to measure the speed of a cart) and method B (an untrasonic motion sensor was used to measure the speed of a cart).
- The students were each given a handbook that had detailed instructions for doing each lab.
- Each school was provided with sets of VHS tapes that included demos for each unit as well as detailed walk-throughs of the methods by which the labs were to be done.
- Each school was provided with sets of digital interfacing equipment. This included a computer equipped with the software and a complete set of interfacing hardware (Vernier photogates, a Vernier multi purpose lab interface MPLI and the necessary sensors). I’m pretty sure we were Dave Vernier’s first big customer…and we still are.
- Schools were expected to provide the ‘traditional’ lab equipment. This included things like dynamics carts, weights, balances, tuning forks, lenses, mirrors, pulleys and such. Typically the district offices assisted with equipment purchases when needed and Lloyd and I always maintained a detailed list of what was needed (right down to the catalog numbers from three Canadian suppliers) which we faxed to the schools as needed.
- Students were expected to do the labs at the school, supervised by onsite personnel. As teachers we would support this work using the telewriter/audioconference system were using. The students would fax in the lab reports and we would grade them and return them via fax. Overall the average of the lab grades was worth 10% of the student’s mark.
Clearly we put a lot of work into this. We also put a lot of work into getting the labs done year by year. Students would need a fair bit of nagging in order to get their labs underway. Sometimes phone calls needed to be made to the local principals to get things going. We encouraged the students to work in groups as after all, most labs are such that they need to be done by teams. The problem with this was that, all too often, it was clear from the faxed in reports that the workload was lop-sided. One or two of the students at any site were doing all of the work and the remainder of the students were just copying.
So what did we do? We all persevered. Copied work was identified and students were called to task. Though it did not solve the issue it diminished it and sometimes we just had to accept partial victories. Late work was painstakingly tracked down, sometimes very late but we judged late to be better than never.
In 1993 we brought in grade twelve physics and did it all over again. In 1995 we brought in grade eleven chemistry and had to face new challenges. All things considered, high school physics labs do not need to be inherently dangerous unless, of course you expect students to throw dynamics carts at one another or eat AA batteries. Chemistry was different. Caustic and poisonous materials had to be used. High temperatures were sometimes necessary.
So off we went again: lab manuals, videos on VHS and digital interfacing as necessary. This time, though, the supervision element was much more important. In physics, frankly, we were satisfied as long as an adult was in the vicinity. In chemistry the adult had to be observing the proceedings. So we did what felt normal. We communicated this to the schools involved and required agreement that the students would be adequately supervised by teaching staff before we would agree to offer the course. The schools adapted. We also altered the labs. Andre Hudson, our original chemistry teacher (he’s still teaching chemistry online) reworked the existing labs so that less strong acids and bases could be substituted if possible. When not possible he reworked the formulations so that the materials were not highly concentrated. In several cases the labs were switched to microscale; that is the methods were altered so that only minute quantities were needed—drops instead of mililitres.
Again, no magic; just plain hard work, attention to detail and a determination to get the job done. It worked.
Well there were occasional hiccoughs. One week Lloyd was frustrated as the students were not getting the expected results in a lab. He tried time and again to help them but always the students were reporting they still could not get the required result. Finally, in desperation, he asked them to just fax in their lab notes and measurements so he could see of he could sort it out. Lloyd doesn’t use strong language so I knew something was wrong when he started muttering his worse curse, “My Blessed Moses.” repeatedly and then grabbed my sharpie in his fist and wrote in all caps across the data, “YOU NINNIES.” “Why, Lloyd?” I inquired. “Look!,” and he passed the students’ note to me. It read, “Mr. Gill, we really don’t know what’s wrong. We’ve tried and we’ve tried and we still keep getting zero percent discrepancy. What are we doing wrong?” In case you don’t know, discrepancy represents the difference between your answer and the one that was expected. The students’ results were, in fact, perfect. They just didn’t know what they were doing! A danger inherent in being too specific in your instructions…
Here’s a few from way back in 2000: Alpha Decay, Beta Decay, Experimenting with Newton’s Second Law, Particles in a Magnetic Field, and an exploration of Kirchoff’s Voltage Rule in series and parallel circuits. I enjoyed making these but found, that as flash became more and more capable (and complex) I became less and less motivated to spend my personal time trying to keep up and moved on. Besides, implementing this new program was just about burning me out at the time anyway.
We brought Biology online in 2004. Now, in addition to hot things, caustic things, poisons, and heavy things we also had sharp and pointy objects as well a bit of ickiness. We got through that too, mostly by reworking the procedures so that things were just plain less dangerous. And yes, it was not easy but, again, we persevered.
But the expectations remained. Perhaps it’s just me getting a bit old and jaded—I began teaching in 1983 and while it really seems like the blink of an eye, I suppose it’s really been an entire generation. Nonetheless not only me, but others became increasingly aware that it was getting harder and harder to get the labs done. Fortunately we were able to bring out one final weapon: lab support instructors. Two of our people are dedicated to getting the labs done, in all courses, in all sites.
Again, no magic. Steve and Della do whatever it takes. They converse regularly with their other science teaching colleagues to learn what labs are on at any particular point in time and, more importantly, to determine where there help is most needed. With this information they go to work, employing several strategies:
- As needed, they will visit a site, bring along any required equipment and assist the students in getting labs done. On any particular visit they will likely be working with multiple students and getting several labs done in several different courses. Site visits can be costly so an intensive amount of work has to be done in the available time.
- Videoconference technology enables the instructors to guide students through the procedures without requiring an actual visit.
- When not doing site visits or online demos and walk-throughs they update the web-based materials, producing new demos and other materials that can be viewed asynchronously.
There’s one more thing that is now being used effectively. The Internet now contains quite a few high-quality simulations that can provide some of the benefits of a hands-on lab. Though these will never take the place of hands-on labs they are proving to be increasingly useful in quite a few areas.