By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
A recent press release in The Hindu newspaper, titled “Virtual lab for exploring science in top 10 institutes,” explained a new initiative by the government of India.
The release states, “Students pursuing higher studies at the country’s top technical institutes will now be able to do any experiment without going to a laboratory but through virtual labs.” It goes on to note that the government will be spending $40 million (Rs 2 billion) to complete this project within a year.
Coming on the heels of new virtual science lab commercial products from Romania, Turkey, and Scotland, this announcement should have our attention for two reasons.
It shows that India has made a huge commitment to gaining ground in science and engineering. They have decided to increase their ability to graduate qualified students in these fields from their premier education organization, the India Institutes of Technology.
The announcement also highlights our own problems. Rather than engaging in our own initiatives, we are spending our education tax dollars to import simulation software from foreign countries. We’re sending our stimulus dollars to the Middle East! As I have noted previously, the end of this process could be outsourcing not just of software services, but of entire courses including the teachers to foreign countries.
For a relatively paltry fraction of the money that India is spending, we could be promoting great science education technology initiatives right here at home. A few million dollars to make us more competitive in science education seems like nothing compared with trillions in spending and even with $40 million being spent on a single project by India.
I contacted our Department of Education about this topic and received a polite letter informing me that the Department does not do this sort of thing. I should contact the states, all 50 of them, one at a time! I have contacted many of the states too. They say that I should contact the individual districts, most of which say to contact the schools. Talk about buck passing!
I have a vested interest in all of this. My modest company produces a solution for online science labs that uses prerecorded real experiments. I do my best to avoid bias and like to think that my involvement just allows me to focus better on what’s going on. I see little support for innovation and entrepreneurship in education. As a scientist, I have great concern about this entire issue, which is why I entered the virtual lab business in the first place.
This journal is the perfect place to discuss these matters. It’s all about technology and change, after all. While these two can be discussed separately, I prefer to discuss the use of technology to effect change in education. In fact, I see technology as our only hope for bringing about real and useful change, at least in science education.
The well-known challenges in science education today include:
- increasing class sizes, sometimes over forty students
- decreasing budgets made even worse by the recession
- loss of lab time to high-stakes testing
- complete removal of some labs due to new safety regulations
- increasing costs for hazardous waste disposal
- greater insurance costs for science labs where overcrowding causes more accidents
- reluctance of overworked and underpaid teachers to change their methods
- high teacher turnover due to the stresses of some current school environments
- lack of new teachers trained in science, especially physical sciences
Great efforts have been made over the last quarter century to improve science education. The National Science Education Standards (NSES) were published to great fanfare, and have not fixed the problems. New professional development efforts also leave the science classrooms unimproved. Billions of dollars have been spent.
The Obama administration has proposed new curriculum standards, new science labs, and more professional development. These solutions require an abundance of two things we have little of: time and money. The sort of technology that involves physical materials, for example, smart boards, also requires lots of money and professional development to utilize them well.
Internet technology, on the other hand, requires only Internet access, which now is available nearly everywhere, and Internet-literate teachers. This evolving technology, if applied well, can overcome all of the above list of challenges except for the reluctance of many teachers to change methods to employ the new ideas. Given the potential benefits, we should certainly be investigating this approach in as many way as possible.
Why should our government talk about bold steps and yet be so timid compared with India?
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