Virtual labs challenged in correspondence classes
By Keane Richards
Sun Star Contributor
The Faculty Senate is considering a motion that would limit core science courses to those with physical labs. Under the terms of the motion, distance-delivered courses with virtual labs would not satisfy the core requirement.
To fulfill the UAF bachelor’s degree requirements, students must complete at least two core natural science courses, chosen from an extensive list that includes atmospheric sciences, biology, chemistry, geosciences, marine sciences and physics. Currently, the majority of core science classes have hands-on labs, while the same course offered electronically to rural campuses does not.
Rainer Newberry, a professor of geology and geophysics who proposed the motion, argued that science is “not about memorizing factoids,” but about doing. “It doesn’t have to be taught that way, the same way as swimming doesn’t have to be taught in the water,” he said, but “how much do you want to compromise?”
Newberry cited a lab from his GEOS 101 class, in which students make lava by melting volcanic rocks in a superheated oven. Watching a virtual jar pour a liquid on a computer screen is quite different. “Can you spill? he asked, “Can the jar break? Students need to realize that things don’t always go the way they should, that explosions occasionally happen.”
“Occasionally,” he smiled.
Jonathan Dehn, a volcanologist and Faculty Senate president, agreed with the point of the motion but thought it was too restrictive. “What would be better would be to set up some criteria for when a virtual lab is appropriate and when it is not,” he said. “There are cases where you could have a virtual lab. But they are not designed to replace the hands-on experience that a student needs.”
The issue brings light to how to properly deliver distance science courses in general.
“UAF is caught in a bind, because on one hand, by rule of the Board of Regents, all of our core has to be available to everybody, including [to students] at rural sites. And actually doing so is some combination of expensive and not of the same quality,” Newberry said.
The best solution, he said, would be to bring distance students to one of the UAF campuses, even for just a week. Students could then participate in labs with their instructors. He acknowledged that money is the biggest obstacle to that option. Dehn proposed taking the lab to the students.
“Maybe we could have a professor visit a rural campus. I think that would be an interesting approach,” he said.
While most students do enjoy making lava and occasional explosions, UAF student Blake Eggemeyer, who is taking his first course with a hands-on lab this semester, disagreed with a blanket ban on digital labs. Eggemeyer has a strong background in computer science, and has grown to appreciate “virtual” experiments. “To me it shouldn’t matter whether the lab is virtual or not. If it’s not lab-like enough, it shouldn’t be a lab. I’m sure there could be very good virtual labs,” he said.
Whatever the final decision on virtual labs is, it is not likely it will be made quickly. The motion was referred to the Curricular Affairs committee. The motion is not on the agenda for the next meeting on Feb. 1, but “It’ll definitely happen before the end of the semester,” Newberry said.
Newberry said the end result will probably be a compromise. Dehn didn’t think there would be much opposition to the final version. “If it’s well thought out with a series of criteria I think it will sail past,” he said.