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Simulated vs. Hands-On Lab Experiments

By Michelle R. Davis — June 16, 2009 3 min read
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A student in an Advanced Placement biology class might dissect a fetal pig to study internal organs and the skeleton. But can a student get the same level of experience from a virtual dissection online, without actually smelling the formaldehyde or making a cut?

In recent years, the College Board, which authorizes AP classes and offers college-level material to high school students, has been trying to determine whether simulated labs in some science courses can take the place of real-world experiments. It’s a debate that online science providers and hands-on teachers are grappling with as well.

In the coming years, some students taking online Advanced Placement science courses may have to leave their computers and head to an actual classroom as the College Board moves toward a model likely to require more hands-on laboratory experiences for those who take AP courses online.

“Some experiences can be set up online so they can manage and manipulate the data, but some skills we really want them to do in the real world to get college credit,” says Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based College Board.

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About 17 percent of the 17,000 schools that offer Advanced Placement courses provide them online. The online offerings allow home-schooled students, for example, or those at schools that don’t provide their own AP courses to access the advanced classes.

Generally, such online courses work well, Packer says, but AP science classes, which have laboratory requirements, have encountered roadblocks. A panel studying simulations for online AP science courses such as biology, chemistry, and physics found that simulations alone couldn’t provide the experiences needed.

Currently, the College Board provides conditional authorization to AP science courses with only virtual lab components. As the College Board works to overhaul its curriculum for those science courses, however, the provisional authorization will become a thing of the past, says Michael Kabbaz, its senior director of college and university services.

AP biology is first on the list for revamping. By the 2011-12 school year, no conditional authorization will be permitted.

Still, Kabbaz says that since technology is constantly changing, there is a possibility that virtual simulations may be able to meet the requirements in the future. “We’ll be as eager as anyone else to see what develops,” he says. “The ideal scenario will probably involve a mix” of simulated and hands-on experiments, he adds.

Zipporah Miller, the associate executive director of professional programs and conferences for the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, says virtual experiments alone can’t equal real-world labs. “The simulation should be used only as a reinforcement,” she says. “If they go through the simulation, they may get the right answer on an AP exam, but they may not have the experience to apply that knowledge in the real world.”

Some virtual AP providers argue that simulations are being used by everyone from medical students to the military and can suffice. But others are trying to incorporate real lab experiences into their online courses.

If they go through the simulation, they may get the right answers on an AP exam, but they may not have the experience to apply that knowledge in the real world."

Cheryl Vedoe, the president and chief executive officer of the virtual-course provider Apex Learning, says her Seattle-based company has embraced the AP panel’s findings by formulating real-world lab experiments that online students can do mostly on their own. For example, students who take Apex’s online AP biology course will also receive lab kits. A typical kit for an experiment on osmosis and diffusion might contain, among other items, dialysis tubing, glucose test strips, a digital scale, and instructions to add a self-bought potato, Vedoe says.

The Apex AP biology course also comes with simulations of the experiment and a video to support the hands-on lab exercise, she says. The model will work well for both biology and physics, but chemistry is a bit different, Vedoe says. Working with chemicals can be dangerous, so Apex is producing two versions of the AP chemistry course. One includes hands-on experiments that must be performed in a laboratory setting under the supervision of an adult—a scenario easier to envision for students taking the course at a school. The College Board is expected to officially authorize that course. The other version will include only simulations and may be the best option for some home-schooled students, Vedoe says.

“Colleges and universities will recognize the student has completed the course,” she says, “but they may require them to take the lab portion of the course when they arrive.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as Simulated vs. Hands-On Lab Experiments


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