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July 16, 1999
July 16, 1999 -- A research scientist at the University of Oregon says there is a better way to teach students about experimental laboratory research than to have them trundling off to ill-equipped laboratories to do experiments of questionable real-world value.
Instead, physicist Anatoli Arodzero proposes--and is in the early stages of creating--a system where students log onto the World Wide Web (WWW) to access and analyze real scientific data that is beaming down from satellites, is produced at particle accelerators and is generated at experimental set-ups in university labs around the world.
"The current state of lab experiences for students at colleges and universities is severely undermined by limitations of time, space and resources," he says. "In addition, the experience they gain in the laboratory often has little to do with the real world of research for which their education is preparing them."
The idea for improving lab instruction began to germinate in Arodzero's mind in 1987 when he was project manager of development of the new Department of Fundamental Science at the Moscow State Technical University (MSTU) in Russia. He observed an array of problems.
Not all universities can support a wide spectrum of laboratory research set-ups because of their high price and operation and maintenance costs and the lack of necessary space. The length of laboratory sessions--determined by scheduling priorities, not by scientific necessity--are often too short to fully research a given process or phenomenon. In many cases, laboratory instruction, instrumentation and student research projects do not fully reflect the current level of professional experimental research.
Since that time, the Internet and WWW have developed and so has Arodzero's vision of how to address these problems. His idea has taken shape as the World Wide Student Laboratory (WWSL).
"The idea is quite simple and yet quite profound," he says. "It uses existing technology."
To demonstrate the idea, Arodzero and his collaborators have created a WWSL web site on the UO physics department's web server at http://zebu.uoregon.edu/~wwsl/ and on a mirror site in Russia. While Arodzero envisions that these hubs will one day serve as central gateways to hundreds of lab set-ups around the world in every field of science, one physics set-up is already functioning. The Cosmic Rays Research Group page links two student research set-ups--one at the UO and the other at MSTU--that feature sophisticated cosmic ray detectors. Students at either university--or, more broadly, any student anywhere with a WWW connection--can access data from these labs.
The Russian Ministry of Education has created a special committee to consider the UO/MSTU model for widespread implementation as part of their effort to retool the Russian education system for the coming millennium. Next year, students enrolled in some laboratory courses at MSTU will use the WWSL Cosmic Ray Research Group lab site as a regular part of their coursework.
"Why create costly set-ups at each and every university, when one set-up can be accessed by thousands of students around the globe via the Web?" asks Arodzero. "If we can provide cosmic ray labs, other universities could collaborate to make available set-ups in other areas of research. Through the WWSL, all these first-rate lab set-ups could be available to students at participating institutions."
The WWSL concept is very flexible, he adds, and is not limited to lab set-ups at universities. He notes that there are vast amounts of data produced by government research laboratories, satellites, particle accelerators, telescopes and at other highly technical facilities around the world--all of which are already connected to the WWW.
"All that is required to make this data available to students around the world is some focused work by a small number of people at a WWW site and for professors to incorporate this tool into their lessons," he states.
Arodzero stresses the differences between this use of computers in education and the much more common conception of computers as a vehicle for "virtual" experiments.
"The virtual experiments are interesting, but often they are far removed from the real world of research that we are training our students for," he says. "WWSL students do real science; that is, their work has all the elements of real scientific research--using raw data, remote control of real instruments and data analysis gathered over a longer period of time and from distant instruments."
Arodzero says there are two other benefits that may be of special interest to administrators who must wrestle with the rapidly changing economics of higher education.
"The WWSL is a highly cost-effective use of resources such as staff time, equipment and laboratory space. And, as outreach programs more aggressively court student tuition dollars, the WWSL is ideally suited for distance education," Arodzero adds.
The WWSL can be useful at many levels--from high school to graduate school. Many high schools, he explains, are investing significant resources to gain Internet access. The WWSL can maximize that investment by allowing schools that don't have sufficient money or staff to nevertheless offer their students high quality lab experiences via computers.