Virtual labs, maker spaces, and hands-on science

A few days ago, I read a piece on promising new developments in virtual labs (“Massive, open, online…lab experiments?” | The Boston Globe). The proposed “iLabs” join many other good, free, online virtual labs and simulations — the Indian government’s Virtual Labs and University of Colorado’s PhET simulations among them. Add to these the “citizen science” projects like Galaxy Zoo, and thousands of science demonstrations on YouTube, and it is fair to say that the options for simulated (and real) laboratory work are pretty excellent and getting better all the time.

Bu a few days before that, I had spent an hour in the Turbine Hall — a science playground, literally — at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) in Portland, Oregon. Playing at OMSI just for just an hour (would that it were more) reminded me of the growing opportunity for inexpensive, physical, hands-on learning that is increasingly available almost anywhere you turn. For example, my personal Google+ stream features a good dose of Wil Wheaton, who offers up plenty of three-dimensional printer creations. 3D printing is not yet cheap exactly, but a decent printer can be had for more or less the cost of a mid-grade laptop. Maker Spaces are popping up in cities, and Make magazine not only encourages hacking at home but also puts on worldwide “Maker Faires“. Books can be had that turn standard kitchen ingredients into experiments that will teach every fundamental concept in chemistry. A cheap microscope (or a smartphone with a lens attachment) blows anything that Hooke or Leeuwenhoek had out of the water.

I perceive, or maybe imagine, a tension between the virtual and the physical experiences; where we encourage one, we suppose a decline in the other. Yet the best virtual experiments do not bother to replicate what can be done at home, but rather try to approximate the use of equipment and performance of experiments normally available to very few. The best physical experiments, likewise, do not bother simply to rehearse a concept easily demonstrated virtually, but demand interaction, agency, iteration, structured failure, and tangible success. There are important differences between the real and the virtual investigation of science, and both have value.

Our staff and students alike are sometimes frustrated by the lack of laboratory experiences available to perfectly match our science and engineering courses at, but the fact is that opportunities are proliferating online and offline. We not only encourage students to explore outside of our present offerings and outside of the web, but we expect that they will, they should, and they must!

Playing at OMSI reminded me just how much fun hands-on learning can be and is supposed to be. Not everyone lives close to a science museum, of course, but while all that science and engineering under one roof is pretty fantastic, but good lab science, real and virtual, gets easier to come by every day.

If you have a favorite lab science resource, let us know in the comments or share a link in our forums — and do not be afraid to hack your own lab science education!

Photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin CC BY 2.0

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