Virtual Labs Project Results in Actual Funding for Kent State Professors

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Collaboration resulted in the success of the labs project.
Two Kent State University professors received funding from the National Science Foundation for a project that helps teach core concepts of science-based disciplines, biophysics, chemistry and materials science to undergraduates through the use of interdisciplinary virtual labs. Laura Bartolo, professor and director for the Center for Materials Informatics, and John Portman, associate professor of physics and Center for Materials Informatics fellow, are collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on the $500,000, three-year project.

The three universities that received funding are jointly developing the virtual labs and each is implementing the labs in different ways. Both Carnegie Mellon University and MIT are using the labs in larger introductory science classes that can accommodate up to 500 students each year. At Kent State, the labs are initially being introduced in smaller classes.

“The Virtual Labs project is designed to support the integration of research into undergraduate studies and encourage learning situations in a digital format,” says Bartolo. “But the focus is to reinforce key concepts that will keep coming back throughout each program.”

Students complete the labs on the Virtual Labs site hosted by MatDL , which runs on the same opensource software as Wikipedia. To begin to measure the success of these labs, students are asked to take a pre- and post-test.

Portman, who uses the labs in his Introduction to Biological Physics class, says results have been positive. "As an example of a truly interdisciplinary subject, the course in biological physics helps fill a real gap in our curriculum," Portman says. "Within this course, the virtual labs are being used to help reinforce fundemental concepts at the interface between chemistry, physics and biology." Undergraduate honors physics major and virtual labs collaborator Aaron Slodov agrees. “The labs are good tools,” he says. “The more you can provide a class besides a textbook, the better.”

The virtual labs are also open to non-students. Anyone can visit the virtual labs site to complete the labs on subjects like equilibrium and entropy. In addition to use in introductory undergraduate science courses, Bartolo says the collaborators hope the labs will be used in other learning environments such as advanced placement high school classes and public libraries. Those locations don’t require additional effort such as downloads, and also benefit from low security risks.

Bartolo, Portman and Slodov, along with their collaborators at Carnegie Mellon and MIT, are planning to make improvements and expand the labs in the coming semesters. Slodov will be reformatting the labs using Abode Flash software to make the program faster and easier to use. This spring, the group members will lead a conference session where they plan to share the Virtual Labs project with other universities.

Bartolo says she hopes other universities will participate in the project, as well as provide feedback for Kent State, MIT and Carnegie Mellon’s virtual labs. “We have had a real attempt to have a team-based approach,” she says. “We all have students trying to gain understanding of the same concepts.”

For more information about the virtual labs project, visit the Virtual Labs Web site.
For information about the National Science Foundation grant visit the NSF
Web site.

By Katie Young

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