K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-15: CDLI; Science Labs

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.

Many liken the south coast of Newfoundland to parts of northern Scotland. The landscape is rough; shaped by glaciation and home to numerous fjords. Inside those fjords the water and the air are so calm, so peaceful. Small wonder people come out here to get away from the madness.
Speaking of Labs, how about a few pictures from Grey River, a place that’s used to doing labs by Distance? Recall back in January I posted on two trips taken to Francois? Well, further along the same coast lies this equally-isolated community.
The tiny fishing community of Grey River got started here in the early 1800s and still generates decent revenue from the salmon and scallop fisheries. Though most of the coast is ice-free the somewhat brackish water here is a bit more prone to freezing than is the nearby ocean. Look at those neat broken lines in the ice. Do you wonder how they got here?
Most likely courtesy of one of the Coast Guard ice-breaking vessels. After all, a community so dependent on the fishery can’t afford to remain ice-bound for long!
Way, way up high in the hill above the community you can find the microwave repeaters that bring the Internet on which we depend. They are solar powered–see the panels there pointing more or less southward. The signal starts in far-away Burgeo and then is bounced through a series o dishes to the Island community of Ramea and out to here.
As you get closer down to the water’s edge the hills start to appear a bit less steep. Don’t be fooled, though! The water is generally calm as is the air. Wait until the summer…
Did I mention the south coast was rugged? …and the fjords?
That’s the road to Burgeo. That road is nowhere near Grey River! It’s ploughed, though. Take a look. Here are there you will find fuel caches for the helicopter. It’s a long, long way between communities and you REALLY don’t want to break down or run out of fuel here…

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…

By the early part of 2000 we were solidly on our way towards converting the content from print to web-based formats. The videos could now be embedded right in the course content. This was a great step up from the VHS tapes as we had, frankly, experienced no end of frustration with students either losing them or neglecting to take the time to watch them when they were supposed to. Andre experimented with javascript to add interaction and I experimented with Flash. We both found some success but, unfortunately, we both discovered that adding interactivity came at a huge cost of time and we really didn’t have much of that. So, after the initial course development was done, neither of us had much time to spend upgrading the interactive components. Too bad.

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.

Sometimes a site visit is in order. Mike Sceviour oversees a titration.
One of the nice things about using interfacing technology is that the excellent data you get can be easily displayed graphically so you can perform “what if’s.” Take a close look–that titration curve looks pretty sweet!
When the students perform the activities not only to they ‘get’ the underlying concepts but they also develop valuable data-gathering and analysis skills. For those of you who have actually done this stuff, you also know you also learn how to construct–and more importantly, troubleshoot–appropriate apparatus.

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.

Here’s Steve Penney. His job is to ensure that labs get done. Right now he’s demonstrating how to get a procedure started. Where are the students?
They don’t seem to be here. But what’s with that TV thingy?
Oh, look there they are. Kim Furey (Biology teacher) is there too.
Steve is doing what he often does. He’s showing students in five schools how do do a lab that Kim has assigned. At their end they see Steve full screen. I minimized them to the sides–see them all arranged around Kim–to take this picture as I don’t want to show their faces :>) Teachers and students can work wonders with videoconference bridges!

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.


17 thoughts on “K-12 Distance Ed. in NL-15: CDLI; Science Labs

  1. I was going to say about the difference between my physics and chemistry courses, but as ever you pointed it out anyway, I don’t ever remember doing anything in the physics lab apart from sitting there with a terrible teacher and being drilled. Definitely a book-based course for oldies. Whereas chemistry on the other hand was much more exotic.

    The difference computers and the internet have made must be huge. I wonder if it has led to an improvement in education (not judging by some of the garbage I read) or a) a different style of education and b) in the case of your communities, more accessibility?

    1. First, on behalf of all physics teachers, I apologize for the horrible experience you had in physics. No sarcasm. It happens far too often and there’s no need for it. While, far too often, physics is taught, by unsympathetic, rigid and just plain ornery (mostly) men that does not need to be the case. At its roots physics is driven by a desire to spot patterns in nature, and through this, perhaps to gain a bit more understanding of the physical world.

      Though often it is presented as a series of algebraic formulas that describe, in simple terms, an idealized environment the fact is that nothing could be further from the case! Though physicists do often model the real world, and thereby remove unwanted ‘noise; from the picture so as to get at particular bits of the truth, the fact is that the math is, in reality not basic algebra but, rather a complex marriage of, among other things statistics and calculus and the real life situations studied in physics really do take into account all of the things those high-school-mathy-physics teachers do not.

      Good physics teachers know this and therefore do not bother to try and turn high school physics students into algebra-wizard-physicists. They try, rather, to try and bestow upon the students a sense of how wonderful the physical world is, how powerful the tools of physics are for making some sense of it and, perhaps most importantly try and light a few fires; to get students used to using the tools of physics to help them make their own sense of the world. And it can be fun if you back off on the silly algebra and, instead work on early appreciation for experiencing the physical world, for some powerful ideas, number sense and, hopefully the foundations of calculus, but not calculus itself.
      As you can see that’s one thing that really gets me going! Physics can be something that just about everyone can love but, too often, it just becomes a silly tool for furthering an understanding of elementary algebra; something that really does nobody any good!

      On to the topic of computers. I believe me would find ourselves mostly in agreement. The basic existence of computers and related technologies (ipads and other tablets, smartphones and the like) has done very little, by itself, to help things along. When you factor in two important things though, specifically dedicated, skilled teachers and appropriate software and hardware you do see improvements. In our case, of course we’d have been dead in the water without the technology so it can be said that they’ve had some effect: approximately 1000 students per year in over 100 schools for the past 25 years and, as measured by our provincial exams, much the same achievement as face to face. Yes—that’s something, especially when you consider that without our system the students would have had nothing at all as an alternative!

      But, in real terms, though, it’s much more complex. Countless time and money has been wasted in frivolous pursuits. People with power see a new shiny toy (or have a sell job done on them) and then waste oodles of everyone’s time and money wondering , “how can this be used, I wonder, in the classroom?”

      Ridiculous! Perhaps gains could be shown but they would be either the result of a halo effect or just plain bias—look, you can design a study to give you any result you want. Honest: no, effective: yes.
      In the end, though, fortunately, many have asked the right question. Specifically, “How can we improve what we are doing here.” And, in many, many cases the solutions have involved computer hardware and software. BUT—only after teachers, administrators and students spent the rime, did the work and got the system right.

      And, THAT, by the way, is why I love what I do :>)

      1. The problem with physics was that initially we had a great teacher (all our science staff were women, it was an all girls school). She was very sharp and very good (as was the chemi one).

        But the problem came when it came to specialising for exams. I chose physics and chemistry as two separate subjects. The other option was physical science and biology (in which I had no interest at all). Good physics teacher ended up teaching the physical science module. Our (new) teacher stood up on her first day and said she never wanted to be a teacher anyway but didn’t make it to be a reseacher. Full marks for honesty but zilch for confidence building among her new pupils, who tended to be the brighter ones as physical science and biology was regarded as a soft option (qv my posts about IWD and what subjects/areas women follow/study).

        From the perspective of a student, a good teacher just really makes a mind-blowing difference, I can cite examples from every single school and university course I have studied.

        Your environment is not the norm, a similar one in my home country would be the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. I was trying to say there is a difference between using technology to improve education, ie the communication basically, and using it, just because.

        Good to have a rewarding job though. I enjoyed some of mine for some of the time, but not for ever.

  2. I can related to this part of your caption “For those of you who have actually done this stuff, you also know you also learn how to construct–and more importantly, troubleshoot–appropriate apparatus”.
    Physics labs provide you with a training in troubleshooting that can be applied to basically anything. I used to say that my IT debugging skills had been based on my experience with tracing down vacuum leaks or trying to understand how various experimental parameters determine the properties of the superconducting films I fabricated.
    In my opinion connected computer systems quickly become as complicated black boxes as “natural systems” and are better advanced in this reverse engineering way – than by reading through manuals and trying to find the single programmer in the world who knows how this stuff should really work.

  3. I am not really a science person, so talk of physics and chemistry feel over my head. however, it is fascinating to see what has been accomplished in long distance learning to provide your students with everything they need to have as close to a classroom experience as possible. I find it amazing how the tiny villages are able to educate their children in such remote places. I also love your photos of the area, landscape and how the learning looks. I am in awe of what all of you have dome. Thank you for giving me a way to see what is happening in places I may never visit myself.

    1. Much of what I see about distance education is based on the premise that it is an ‘extra,’ a way to save money or a way for private interests to make money on the k-12 system which is, admittedly, a huge market, In our case, though, it’s different. This is a vital part of the public system, not a frill, and certainly not a way for the system to save money. As you can probably tell I am very honoured to have been a part of this team for the past 25 years and feel that, together, we have done some good work. I will retire from this job later on this year–with nothing but fond memories–and wanted to get it down in writing before leaving. Thanks for your comment!

  4. Pingback: Blogging Anniversary with Post No. 63. Equal to: 42 Plus (42 Divided by 2) | Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything

  5. Sorry it took so long for me to get to this … but wanted to take time to read it. It’s the one I’ve been waiting for for some time. You mentioned ‘icky’ things … should I take that to mean dissection? Perhaps I moved too quickly through this and you did indeed mention that? I’m guessing, with the appropriate video conferencing hardware that you describe that follow-the-leader type demonstrations wouldn’t have been that difficult to carry out? D

    1. Yes, I did. Unfortunately, though, dissection is no longer a core lab in the high school program. Safety concerns. Sign of the times I guess. from 1983-1992 I was a science-math teacher in a rural k-12 school and taught, among other things, intermediate science. I loved that program–it blended in a solid understanding of both life science and physical science and did so in a way that I thought was pretty scientifically authentic; that is, the various investigative skills we value in science were solidly part of the instruction. Grade 8 included a study of living systems and students were required to dissect a frog. It got done and never, not even once, was there anything close to a safety issue. We followed it up in grade 9 when we again dissected a frog and a large flower, but this time to study only the reproductive systems. Never a problem; just the occasional complaint that it was yucky. Like I said–a sign of the times. Perhaps a blended approach that combined hands on for those who wished to do it that way and simulation for those who didn’t could be phased in.

  6. As I was reading this, I kept wondering if a distance learning program could be used in conjunction with standard classroom teaching to integrate a uniformity to educational experiences across an area, like a school division or a province. Perhaps this question is dated, as school divisions in my home province of Saskatchewan have better control and regulation of teaching practices in rural schools than they did back in the days of locally administered community school boards. Classroom monitoring is more strict and coherent than it once was.

    I think your work is an excellent achievement, saying this from the point of view of receiving very little science training in school. My science programs in the late 1980s was very poor to non-existent, and even when students did receive lectures (rarely labs, and often–for physics–the class transformed into a chess league coached by the teacher) there was an overt, aggressive bias that ‘girls can’t do science’ voiced by the teaching staff (the premise was that females ‘don’t have the right brains’). I’m horrified by it now, and back in my youth the experience shook me right out of my preference for science over other classes.

    University was great, I received a lot of encouragement after the intro classes in math and science to continue with a career in the fields, even actively recruited in one case (the benefits of a small university with faculty who really care). But I always felt I was too far behind the other students to catch up.

    I am really intrigued with the possibility that in cases where the system fails (i.e. failure to secure an adequate teacher), there might be options for students (I can’t help but worry at least a little… I have two daughters who haven’t arrived at the senior classes yet.)

    I’m so glad Elke recommended your blog.

    1. Thanks for this comment! We have been operating now for twenty-five years and one of the reasons we succeed is that we were created to fulfill a need: specifically to provide access to courses that could otherwise not be offered. I think that as long as that remains the case we will be successful. The same can happen in any jurisdiction. The one thing to remember, though, is that the reason for doing this should not be to save money. Instead it should be simply to provide the best possible program.

      1. Using this program would most certainly be more expensive, if it was used as a means to ensuring a quality program for students (if I understand your post as it describes the model, with classroom teachers on hand). But as it has happened in the past, not all teachers understand a field well enough to really teach it but are left in the classroom anyway. When situations like this occur, having distance learning ensures students can still receive education at the required standards for the short term (assuming that eventually new staff can be brought in to the system). For example, this could help rural communities where qualified staff must go on leave for a period of time, and attracting the ‘right’ person to cover all subjects might be difficult to achieve… (just a thought)

  7. Lindsay

    Hi there!
    Just wondering how old those pictures of Grey River are? My grandmother was born there and I’m trying to find some old pictures for my father for Christmas.

  8. Pingback: History Of K-12 Distance Education In Newfoundland And Labrador | Virtual School Meanderings

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