ASEE PRISM - September 2000
Teaching Toolbox
The Virtues of Virtual Labs

Web-based laboratories allow students to conduct detailed experiments any time they want--and cost far less to create and maintain than the real thing.

By Margaret Mannix

There's no question the Internet has more than proved its mettle on university campuses around the world. From videoconferencing and chat room discussions to course Web sites and e-mail tutoring, the Web continues to demonstrate its versatility as a learning tool in the realm of higher education. So it was only a matter of time before the Web wove its way into engineering laboratories.

Jesus del Alamo, a professor of electrical engineering in the department of electrical engineering and computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, created a Web-based microelectronics lab for his students in 1998 so they could get some real world experience with the concepts they were learning in his class. "I was frustrated," says del Alamo. "I could never have the students go to the lab and take measurements with a real transistor. The logistics were very hard." But now Del Alamo's students can access a semiconductor parameter analyzer remotely via the Web. "It allows the students to apply what they learn in class to what is happening in reality," he says.

At Johns Hopkins University, chemical engineering professor Michael Karweit has simulated several engineering and science laboratory projects on the Web. The virtual laboratories the students use range from programming a robotic arm and designing a truss bridge to drilling for oil and deducing the rate at which heat is transferred in an air duct. "Essentially they can 'play' to see what happens under various inputs," explains Karweit. "Students seem to have a better idea of some concepts after this exploration."

That sentiment is echoed by other cyberlab creators. "The students that take the lab have found that one of the most valuable things is to go to the physical lab and do the experiment and leave and go to their dorms and do more detailed experiments whenever they want," says Michael Hites, chief technology officer at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Mechanical engineering students at IIT can tap three remote-control experiments, including an unsteady fluid flow investigation experiment using a household oscillating fan, and a recycling experiment that operates an automated can crusher.

Being able to perform the experiment anytime, anywhere, is one of the major benefits of a virtual lab. Muniram Budhu, a professor of civil engineering at the College of Engineering and Mines at the University of Arizona, says the 24/7 access was a blessing for a disabled student. "This student couldn't do the lab because he was in a wheelchair," says Budhu, creator of an online sediment experiment. "He had to observe." With a computer, the student could perform the lab online.

Virtual labs could eventually help develop laboratory skills in distance learning students. "Laboratories are one of the principal ways that engineers learn how to apply theory," says Karweit. With a virtual lab--like any distance learning tool--it makes no difference whether a student is in a campus apartment or on an Indian reservation in New Mexico. And unlike physical experiments, their Web-based counterparts aren't as expensive to create and maintain.

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"The logistics of tailoring a real lab, particularly when you are dealing with 100 students, is really daunting," says del Alamo. "We don't have the space, the instrumentation, the human support." What's more, the equipment is very expensive and can easily be damaged. A virtual lab has no safety concerns and training requirements are limited.

Perhaps the most important advantage of virtual labs, though, is that students really like them. Budhu designed his cyber soil experiment to capture the often short attention spans of students reared on Nintendo and MTV. "They are actually learning by doing the things they normally have fun doing," says Budhu, who notes that interactivity is key to the online lab. "They move things around. They are able to pour water into the sample--and hear it. The student doesn't just sit and look at the screen." Adds del Alamo: "They find that this is neat. They enjoy the novelty."

What's more, the virtual labs take away some of the mundane tasks, like number crunching, that tend to elicit groans of tedium from class members. "As a result, they're likely to do more problems or investigate further," says Karweit. "For example, the bridge designer lab solves a large set of equations for every new design. A student would lose interest immediately if he had to do the calculations himself."

Still, online experiments won't keep the kids happy all the time. The same old complaints crop up here and there. "If a server or some computer goes down, they get cranky--but that's the same with any computer program," says Hites. And some students think the labs are too hard, preferring to simply find the formula, fill in the numbers, and circle the answer. "My virtual labs are not like that," says Hites. "Students have to think."

Instructors benefit from the virtual experiments, too. "It is somewhat easier to change experimental parameters once you have the experiment set up," says Hites. "You can have the student do a more detailed laboratory by changing different variables." That can be time-consuming for both professor and students in a real lab.

Being able to tap into the experiment on your own also allows IIT faculty and students to collaborate more seamlessly with visiting engineers and scientists. Typically, experts would fly in and perform an experiment using the equipment on campus, or would stay at their home institution and ask for changes via phone or e-mail. "We thought it would be a much nicer situation if they could come to the network and do it themselves," says Hites, who hopes to set up a similar arrangement with local junior and senior high schools. "All they need is a Web browser and Internet connection."

The Web lab can also help fine-tune an instructor's teaching methods. For example, Budhu's experiment keeps a record of how students fare as they progress through it. If many students get a particular element wrong, Budhu can change his style or improve the content of a lecture, for example, to hone in on that particular aspect of the material. "You are testing learning and retention as the student goes through the process." says Budhu. "You don't wait until the end."

Del Alamo says the Web lab has greatly improved his teaching ability and has helped him discover the educational value of the Internet. "I have been trying to teach the physics of transistors for several years, and I felt that I was presenting a very much one-sided picture," he says. It was sort of like "Trust me, this is how a transistor works." With the Web lab, del Alamo's students can now see for themselves.

Although cyber experiments are valuable, most agree they will never replace a hands-on lab. No matter how sophisticated technology becomes, a virtual lab will never be able to replicate the unexpected characteristics of a physical laboratory--the weird noise, the random error, the faulty machinery. And there's no simulating, say, the feel of the sediment, the heaviness of the weight, the turn of the screw. Some things must be experienced firsthand.

Margaret Mannix is a freelance writer in suburban Washington, D.C.

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