Bush science: bringing labs to rural students
By Mark Evans
Sun Star Reporter
Last semester, UAF’s Faculty Senate considered a motion to restrict core science classes to only those that included a hands-on lab component. The motion did not pass and still sits in committee while the senators try to resolve the issue of how core science requirements can be met in distance-delivered courses.
In this two-part series, The Sun Star looks at how core natural science labs are currently conducted and the challenges of presenting them to students in rural Alaska.
“Part 1: Two Approaches, One Class,” can be found here.
Part 2: What do we want? How are we getting it now?
Providing a college education to Alaska’s rural residents is a noble objective, but one laden with challenges. Students may live hundreds, even thousands of miles away from their instructors and each other. New technology promises unlimited information but remains tantalizingly out of reach in many villages.
Rural education is not a new challenge for Alaska. But the tools to achieve it have changed and the economic environment it’s in has never been more demanding.
Mary Pete is the director of UAF’s Kuskokwim rural campus in Bethel. The campus offers certificate and Associate degree programs to students in 46 villages that fan out across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Pete said most of her students attend classes on campus. “Most of them snowmachine in for their classes and their labs,” she said. But some students live too far away for that option. “There are students that I never see for two years until they come in for graduation,” she said.
Pete said that it’s up to the course instructor to decide how a student fulfills his or her science lab requirement. She said that some of them may be able to substitute independent study, “…and then there’s the bucket labs,” she said. “You know about the bucket labs, right?”
Laboratory in a Bucket
The bucket lab: it refers to a kit sent to rural students that contains all the equipment and materials needed for a semester of science labs. The labs use chemicals already found in the home or easily accessible at the village store. Well, sometimes accessible.
“I’ve even had to send Alka-Seltzer out to some students for labs. If you don’t live in a village with a store, that’s something you might not have at home,” said Dr. Brian Rasley, assistant professor of chemistry at UAF. Rasley teaches CHEM 103x, Basic General Chemistry, as a distance-delivered core science class.
Rasley uses audio conferencing for lectures and student contact, Blackboard for grades, and OWL -the ubiquitous chemistry web homework program- for homework assignments. Students must have Internet access to take the class, but Rasley avoids video conferencing because it uses too much bandwidth and not all of his students have broadband. “My deal is to teach to the lowest common [technology] denominator,” he said. “Only some of my students have access to high-speed internet, so I need to stick with audio conferencing since that only requires a phone line.”
His labs are a series of exercises that illustrate simple, but important, chemistry concepts: taking accurate measurements, calculating density, analyzing color wavelengths.
At the beginning of the semester each student receives a lab kit that includes a small digital scale, a handheld spectroscope, a molecular model kit, and various assorted props and materials that the student will need.
Rasley said the best way to administer labs is to bring all the students together in a central location and have a week-long lab intensive, a method he’s used in the past teaching CHEM 104x. But he said funding that method is becoming more problematic. “If it costs $2000 for airfare and lodging to bring the student to the lab, but you’re only getting lower level tuition from the student, say $400 or $500, you’re already $1500 in the hole. Multiply that by 10 students in the class and you’re talking $15,000, $16,000. Who’s going to pay for that?”
Rasley is not opposed to virtual labs. He said simulation is suitable for many labs and if the software burden weren’t so high for the student, he would be using it more.
Rasley said that sending out lab kits is a relatively cost-efficient method for the 103 class he teaches now, but for classes in which an on-hand lab is necessary, like 104 and higher, the week-long lab intensive is the best compromise we have. “Is it inefficient? Hell yes! Is it cost effective? Hell no! But right now, it’s the best option available, and I would love to see someone come up with the money to fund it,” he said.
The Lab Intensive: A boarding school approach
What do you do if you can’t bring the lab to the students? You bring the students to the lab. Ever since science courses have been offered to rural Alaskan students, this method has been used in one form or another. It works like this: Bring all your students together in one location that has the facilities to conduct your lab; find a way to feed them, house them, and keep them out of trouble; and then compress a semester’s worth of hands-on labs into one intensive week-long laboratory experience.
Dr. Todd Radenbaugh is the director of the environmental studies program at UAF’s Bristol Bay Campus. This semester he is teaching a Distance Ed core science course, BIOL 104x- Natural History of Alaska, to 11 students living in villages from Dillingham, where the campus is located, all the way to Tok, 200 miles southeast of Fairbanks.
For the lecture component of his class, Radenbaugh uses teleconferencing and Blackboard. “I have been experimenting with other DE delivery technology such as Elluminate Live and Second Life, but currently I find teleconference is the best for most of the rural students,” he said. Radenbaugh’s students must have telephone and Internet access to take the class.
Radenbaugh’s class has a 40-hour lab requirement that includes 15 hours of online exercises and virtual labs, and a 25-hour “face to face intensive,” which is held at NOAA’s Auke Bay marine laboratory in Juneau.“I have had classes where I traveled to a village if there were enough students to make this more cost-effective,” said Radenbaugh, “but it does require traveling with lots of equipment. More commonly, the students are scattered across the state, so flying them to a central location with the equipment is less expensive.”
Radenbaugh said that there are several advantages to bringing the students together in Juneau, including the fact that the NOAA site is “first class facility that offers a lab experience that few university students have,” he said.
Radenbaugh said that the biggest disadvantage of the lab intensive is its cost, which he said is well over $1000 per student. All of his 104x students currently receive federal funding. “As long as we have federal funding, cost should not be an issue to the student,” he said, “but I do see a time that we may have to charge students travel fees, then cost will be an issue. So, we are constantly searching for funding to keep this program going. We also are continuing to improve the online lab experience. ”
Lablets and lectures and skills (oh my!)
Dr. Daniel Solie teaches 103x and 104x physics on campus at UAF. Solie also teaches a distance-delivered course to rural students through UAF’s Interior-Aleutians Campus. This is his third semester teaching ‘Bush Physics for the 21st Century.’
“Bush Physics-BP21” is a special topics course. It does not currently qualify as a core science elective. There are 12 students in the class. They are spread out across the continent, from Kotzebue, in Northwest Alaska to Baffin Island, in Northeast Canada. The course includes 46 hours of lecture, delivered mostly by video, and 44 hours of laboratory. The laboratory has two components. The first includes 10 weekly, two-hour “lablets” that the student can perform at home with simple tools and materials. Solie said the lablets provide nearly everything that a formal lab does. “What do we gain from a lab? Collecting data, analyzing data, how to approach a problem, how to write it up,” said Solie, “The lablets provide all that.”
The only thing lablets don’t offer is team collaboration. That’s introduced in the second, 24-hour component, which is a class experiment that all students participate in together but from different locations.
“This semester the experiment is to measure the circumference of the Earth,” said Solie. There will be five or six teams taking measurements from where they live, and then combining the data, analyzing it, reaching a conclusion, and formally presenting their results. Solie said that his goal with the experiment is to provide a team effort that also gives the student “…a sense of place. That’s pretty cool if you can measure the circumference of the earth sitting out in Arctic Village,” he said.
Physics is, by definition, a physical science, and Solie said that he is “not a big fan of simulated labs.” But he said that his goal is to give his students the skills to get their degrees, not just the credits. “I strongly agree that the real, hands-on lab is preferable to anything currently offered online, but we really need to look at our goals here,” he said. “I’ve been teaching physics awhile now and I can tell you, students don’t flunk physics because they’re failing lab.”