Virtual science labs reinforce core concepts

Kathryn McGonagle

Program geared toward undergraduate majors

Professors at Kent State University, Carnegie Mellon and MIT are partnering to create and implement virtual labs that will reinforce core scientific concepts in interdisciplinary and introductory courses.

Dr. Laura Bartolo, Kent State professor and director for the Center for Materials Informatics, and Dr. John Portman are working to develop and spread the use of these labs in the physics department.

“We approached this because of the critical concepts that are difficult for students to understand and difficult for professors to teach,” Bartolo said.

Portman said the labs are currently used at Kent State in Introduction to Biological Physics as an aid to supplement lectures that may be too large to take place in a lab setting.

Going into their third year working on the labs, Portman also said these are not tools to replace the experience of learning in an actual lab environment.

“We’re trying to give them something that does not replace the physical lab but compliments it,” he said.

With the labs just a click away, Bartolo said students could access them anywhere from any computer without the need for special software. She said this ease of access will encourage students to take part in the labs and learn on their own terms.

Also, with the labs geared toward undergraduates, Bartolo said, the National Science Foundation funded project will give students the opportunity to reinforce difficult but integral and fundamental scientific concepts.

“This will give students concrete examples and opportunities to test their understanding,” Bartolo said.

Available on the Internet for free, professors and researchers can add to the growing number of possibilities these labs can offer undergraduates.

“We try various ways to bring research efforts into undergraduate education,” she said. “Virtual labs are a big part of that.”

The students who use the labs aren’t the only ones benefiting. Aaron Slodov, senior physics major, is getting paid for researching, developing and testing the labs.

“A virtual lab where you can manipulate the parameters of whatever environment you’re in will help you learn in greater depth,” Slodov said.

Slodov said not only science classes can benefit from such labs. He said any subject area with difficult concepts could use these labs to help students.

“If anything, I would want to enthrall somebody who doesn’t care or just wants to get a grade,” Slodov said. “Maybe capture their attention for a fraction of a second and show them these concepts are cool.”

Contact arts and sciences reporter Kathryn McGonagle at [email protected].