Thursday, February 19, 2009

Chemistry Lab Simulations - the Late Night Way!

If you work in the field of science – then you have been there. You know… Friday night… 11pm… and you’re in the lab doing some experiment while every other person is either home in bed or out having fun with friends. Science is a strange discipline isn’t it?

Well, there’s one company out there that is turning the concept of late night science experimentation into a complete success story. Coincidentally, they are called Late Night Labs. Their flagship product, REACTOR, is an entirely web-based chemistry lab simulator. Currently they have upwards of 100 simulated chemistry experiments developed that target the high school and first year college/university level. The system is completely customizable and an instructor can use an experiment off the shelf, build an experiment from scratch or they can modify an existing experiment to create a new experiment. Instructors can choose and sequence the experiments and present customizable views to students so that when a particular student logs onto the system, they only see the experiments that the instructor wants them to see. In addition, detailed logs are created showing exactly which experimental steps were conducted in the laboratory simulation and because these logs are available to both the student and the instructor, they become a powerful tool in debugging failures in experiments due to incorrectly followed protocols and they also serve as record of proof that the student successfully undertook the experiment. Very nice!

Late Night Labs has one experiment that is free for anyone to try. It's a short and simple neutralization reaction experiment - and basically serves more as an orientation to the interface than anything else. You can find it here. Just click the "sample lab" button. Try it out and see what you think. If you want to try more, they will issue a 2-week free trial for any instructor considering using the product in an educational setting.

As for the cost, it's significantly cheaper than a 'wet lab' or a kitchen lab. In general, the cost has two components: 1) an institutional license, and 2) a student license. Both licenses need to be in place for the system to be enabled. The institutional license is approximately $500/year and the student licenses range between $25-$50/year (these figures are approximate and depend upon your institutional requirements). Also, there is no computer support required from the institution as this software is all web-based and all data is stored on the servers of Late Night Labs.

It goes without saying, that computer simulations are also significantly safer than real-life chemistry labs as well. Using Late Night Labs, you can seal a beaker of water with a rubber stopper and you can boil it over a Bunsen burner until the beaker explodes just like in real life, except you won't be badly burned in the process (*smile*)

Have you used Late Night Labs or a similar product in your educational setting? If so, please leave a comment below letting us know the strengths and weaknesses.

Image credit: here.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Chemistry Labs at a Distance: the Kitchen takes Centre Stage!

Over the last decade, more and more schools have offered a larger proportion of their curriculum in a distance delivery format. This is largely due to technical advances that have afforded more bandwidth, less expensive course development tools, and adoption of learning management systems at most schools. It is also important to acknowledge that demand by students has also fueled the increase in distance education offerings. I work at the Royal Military College of Canada - Canada’s only military University. We have more students taking distance course offerings than we have students taking classroom courses. Interesting isn’t it!

One interesting observation that I make when I examine our course offerings, is that the large majority of our distance courses are humanities-based. The science courses are few and far between. The largest barrier to completing a science degree via distance is the completion of laboratory components. This is true in many online colleges and universities. It’s far easier to offer science labs in a residential setting than it is to offer then by distance. Despite the challenge, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Consider an introductory chemistry course for a moment. In my view, there are basically four possible options available to course designers:
  1. Construct a condensed residential lab offered in the summer. Distance students can travel to the university for 1 or 2 weeks and complete a series of experiments at an accelerated pace. Note that arrangements could be made to deliver this condensed laboratory at the closest college or university if the student resides a prohibitive distance from the hosting university.

  2. At home labs using a prepared lab kit. The course development team can prepare a kit that contains volumetric glassware, pH testing equipment, small quantities of known salts and chemicals, etc. This kit can provide stand-alone equipment for students to perform experiments at home.

  3. At home labs using kitchen science. The course development team can design experiments that include equipment and materials that students either have in their home already or can easily purchase locally.

  4. Computer laboratory simulations. In recent years, some companies have come out with relatively inexpensive computer simulation packages that can be used to simulate laboratory experiments on a computer.

Each of the four options above has its pros and cons. I won’t outline them all here (maybe I will save them for a future blog post. Hee hee!). However, I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you one resource that I found on the topic of kitchen science for chemistry labs. Doris Kimbrough of the University of Colorado at Denver and Jim Reeves of the University of North Carolina at Wimington have shared several examples of kitchen chemistry in action. Specifically, they share three different packages of distance learning laboratories, dubbed the 'Anytime Anywhere Chemistry Experience', for us to examine:
  1. Web-based materials for Science Majors (10 experiments)

  2. Text-based materials for Science Majors (9 experiments)

  3. Text-based materials for Non-science Majors (9 experiments)

Each experiment in these packages is designed with learning objectives, a list of equipments and materials that the student must purchase, an introduction that contains the theory behind the experiment, a detailed procedure, and a series of questions that need to be answered. (Sometimes, an excel sheet is provided for students to type their data directly into.)

Do you have any experience in offering science labs at a distance? If so, let us know about it by leaving a comment.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Hot Topic: Nursing Simulations in Second Life!

The most frequently visited posting on this blog was written on March 7th, 2008 on the topic of Nursing Simulation in Second Life. If you visit that old posting, you will see that the architect behind leading edge nursing simulation in Second Life is John Miller, a professor of Nursing at the Tacoma Community College of Nursing in Washington, USA.

John actively writes about this topic on his blog. If you are interested in keeping up with his experience, then it is a must read!

John has posted to newer videos on YouTube that demonstrate how he uses Second Life to support learning at his college. The first video is demonstrates a high tech emergency room nursing simulator that he has developed. Together, three participants actively participate in a simulated critical event. A student operates the virtual patient who is placed on a bed and reacts to the treatments administered by the virtual nurse (played by a second student) and a virtual nurse supervisor (played by the instructor). It's a must see video for anyone interested in nursing simulation in the emergency room.

The second video that John has made available shows Centralia island on Second Life that John uses to host learning units for his students on the topic of nursing. Many of the items on Centralia Island link directly to free resources on the web. A simple way to integrate Second Life with other Internet resources.

Are you working in the nursing field, if so, let us know what you think of John's work by leaving a comment below.