Stanford Engineer Develops Virtual Science Labs for MOOCs

By Liana Loewus — January 07, 2014 1 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

MOOCs, or massive open online courses, have been slowly making their way into the K-12 arena, though there’s continued debate about whether the model is a good fit for primary and secondary students (or even higher ed students, for that matter).

But here’s a development that could entice STEM educators to take a second look at MOOCs: An engineering professor at Stanford University has developed a way for students in MOOCs to conduct virtual lab experiments—an “iLab,” as he calls it—and it’s scalable and cost-friendly.

According to The Stanford Report, Lambertus Hesselink previously built “remote access automated labs” that allowed students to use the Internet to control remote hardware, but those were expensive and not scaleable for thousands of students enrolled in a MOOC. This next generation of iLab is completely virtual, with no hardware on either end. For instance, in building a diffraction experiment, the article explains, Hesselink’s team rigged a camera to take snapshots of every possible permutation of the experiment. So when students interact with the controls, they see a video of what would have happened if they’d done the physical experiment. As The Boston Globe explains, “It’s something like a “choose your own adventure” version of a lab experiment.”

The Stanford Report also notes that this sort of virtual experiment is inexpensive, can be created in “just a few hours,” and can be used by as many students as needed at once—which could make it a good bet for cash-strapped K-12 classrooms.

For me, Hesselink’s virtual experiments called another video to mind (below) of an invention from The Tangible Media Group at the MIT Media Lab. The “inFORM system” allows someone to manipulate an object remotely—with just their hands. The group told NPR it is exploring a variety of uses, including, “maps, GIS [geographic information systems], terrain models and architectural models.”

Again, another potentially powerful tool for K-12 science—though this one has a long way to go in terms of cost. (Also, I’d agree with the NPR blogger who calls it “very Star Trek-ish.”) If nothing else, teachers might show this video in class to get students thinking about the power of invention.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.