Simulated Labs Are Anathema to Most Scientists

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
7 November 2008

[Editor’s note: This article was originally submitted as a comment to John Adsit’s November 6 I-Blog article, “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes,” on 11.6.08.]

I completely agree with the last portion of what John [Adsit says in “Old School Thinking Blocks Quality Online Science Classes“]. My own blogging on the subject is at

I also mostly agree with the rest of his comments.

1. Typical lab experiences are poor. However, many science teachers, using the same labs, provide great lab experiences. Online science courses must do as well.

2. John refers to an “‘integrated’ lab program” in America’s Lab Report. [The entire report is available online at no cost.] Actually, the report refers to “integrated instructional units” more than twenty times. It never uses the phrase “integrated lab program” or even “integrated lab.” It’s not the lab program that they wish to be integrated but the instructional unit containing the lab.

keller013. The question of exactly how online science courses will meet the goals is left open. That’s partly good because new technologies cannot always be anticipated. However, the range of options should be restricted a little. Here, America’s Lab Report provides an excellent guideline. Here it is.

“Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science.”

As long as your online science labs fill this definition, you can go forward and test it against the lab goals and the integration goals.

4. Absolutely, old school thinking is blocking excellent innovation in science, especially in the lab area. The reason for this blockage is not hard to find. In addition, the blockage comes in the form of restricted means rather than ends. The blockers (e.g., UCOP) say you cannot use online labs in any form rather than specifying results that must be achieved. America’s Lab Report took the opposite approach.

The reason for the blockage clearly comes from a statement on one UC web page that no virtual lab THAT THEY HAD SEEN could substitute for hands-on labs. Yet, they steadfastly refuse to look at new technologies in virtual labs.

Here’s the problem. A plethora of virtual labs have appeared, and they’re all SIMULATED. That is, they use equations and/or algorithms to generate data, objects, and phenomena for investigation by students. This approach is anathema to most scientists. The attempts to make simulations into science labs has so turned off these scientists that now they won’t even consider ANY virtual labs.

alrYet, many people continue to attempt to create virtual labs from simulations. Instead, they should be looking elsewhere. For example, one of the authors of the NACOL report, Kemi Jona, has been working on an alternate approach: remote real-time robotic labs. They’re virtual, online, and real. They violate the rules of the UCOP, but they meet the America’s Lab Report definition and goals.

That such exemplary work is banned by California and New York is a travesty. With ever-declining budgets and schools in crisis, any valid approach should be supported.

The approach should be as good or better than the best traditional labs. The standard cannot be the “typical” labs that are so poor. They’re a “straw man” and should not be part of the debate.

I hope that someone can get the attention of the UCOP and have them look into some of the excellent alternatives to supervised traditional labs. If they end up looking at simulations, they’ll just be turned off again, and we’ll have to suffer many more years of banned virtual labs. We must present them with real innovations that don’t depend on simulated activities but use real data from the real world with highly-interactive collection of personal data by students.

3 Responses

  1. John Adsit’s and Harry Keller’s posts are remarkably readable even for non scientists like me: thank you both.

    In Harry Keller’s post above, the word “anathema” is particularly interesting. Authorities in charge of education (even of science education, and even if these authorities are also scientists themselves) may be tempted by anathema to simplify decision procedures. Scientists per se – several of whom have been victims of anathemata – don’t usually indulge in bandying them: they rather argue against misleading/unscientific statements or methods, as Harry Keller does convincingly.

    Yet shouldn’t the issues with these algorithm-based simulations be part of the curriculum too? They are used outside school anyway: in weather forecasts, for instance – and unfortunately in economic forecasts too. While the original forecasts usually indicate an uncertainty percentage range, this indication is not always mentioned by the media average people read when they take up these forecasts.



  2. Two issues confuse this debate: goals and use. I wrote, “…they use equations and/or algorithms to generate data, objects, and phenomena for investigation by students.” The key phrase here is “for investigation by students.” That, in my opinion, is an improper use.for a simulation.

    Weather forecasting by computer is not an investigation of the data coming from the model. It’s an investigation of weather and an attempt to find theories that describe it. Just as with gravity, it’s the falling object and not d=1/2at^2 that is the object of study.

    How simulations are used is the key idea here. Use them to test theories and to compare against real data. Do not use them to collect data that students may confuse with real data.

    The other aspect is the goal or goals of the science instructional unit containing the lab. As my son proved to me when he took an AP Physics course without any labs and then passed the test with a best-possible 5-5, you can pass a written test without ever doing a lab. So, if your goal is passing a written test, don’t even waste your time on labs at all.

    If you accept the goals of America’s Lab Report for labs in an integrated instructional unit, especially “understanding the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work” and “understanding the nature of science,” then you necessarily must look to investigating the real world instead of the imaginary world of simulations.

    With so many science courses having so little lab time, the time they do have should be used wisely. Sure, “typical” labs are not wise use, but that’s no reason to replace them with “fake” labs. Our standard, which we seek to equal or better, should be the best lab experiences in current courses, not the worst.

  3. One of the things is that those of us at classroom level can talk about is the lack fo lab resources for many in various schools around the country. A friend of mine at Purdue stated that he felt that there was no real relevance for engineering students in on line labs. I sent him a note to remind him that there was a lack of labs in many minority serving institutions . We talked. So we came up with the idea that it is not a subsitute for lab experiences, but he thought better than nothing.

    In regards to integrating the project into the traditional lab environment, Jona posed the question: “How does the way that we conduct labs in high school change for the better because we have this new flexibility?”

    Jona said that the iLab team was looking to answer this question and how the project can change the nature of science teaching at the high school level.

    “What we want to do with our teachers is begin this sort of re-envisioning process,” he said.

    As part of this science class face-lift, teachers will have access to tools that give them flexibility in the types of experiments they conduct in class. They will no longer have to stick to experiments bound by the availability of standard equipment. They will be able to shop for labs and equipment as if they’re shopping on eBay, which is exactly how Jona envisions the iLab site.
    The iLab Network Visioning Workshop Science Labs of the Futureshowed me possibiliites for the future. Ways to involve teachers and students in new and meaningful ways. There are resources in supercomputing that can be linked as a front end or back end to these labs.
    I am looking forward to reports from teachers about their use.

    Beakers and hot plates and test tubes, oh my! The staples of the high school science lab will soon be available in the library or the café — they’re going digital

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