Saturday, October 08, 2005

Sarah Giersch

Reusability in the Materials Digital Library

Sarah Giersch, National Science Digital Library, Laura M. Bartolo and
Cathy S. Lowe, Kent State, and Adam C. Powell IV, MIT
Wednesday, September 28, 2005, 2:15-3:00 pm

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Effectiveness of Virtual Labs
Laboratory experience has long been considered a critical component of all undergraduate science coursework. In addition, engineering program accreditation [1] requires that programs provide their graduates with training to demonstrate certain abilities, such as the capacity to design and conduct experiments. Traditionally, these abilities have been developed through physical laboratory training. However, there are many practical difficulties associated with providing meaningful hands-on lab experience, especially in large introductory undergraduate science courses. Online environments, such as digital libraries, may offer both needed assistance and new opportunities by supporting virtual lab experiences for introductory undergraduate science classes [2].

Many of the current obstacles related to offering physical labs, such as dwindling budgets, limited physical space, and forecasted increases in undergraduate enrollments may be alleviated or minimized if the same instructional objectives of a physical laboratory experience can be achieved through a virtual lab. An open research question is to what extent new technology, such as digital repositories, can address the absence of a traditional laboratory experience.

The ABET/Sloan Colloquy5 suggested that creating an inquiry-based, collaborative learning experience may be more important than whether the experience is physical or virtual [3]. The colloquy identified thirteen engineering laboratory learning objectives (i.e., instrumentation,
models, experiment, data analysis, design, learn from failure, creativity, psychomotor, safety, communication, teamwork, ethics in the lab, sensory awareness) that can be used to assess achievement for both physical and virtual laboratory experiences. It has been suggested that many of these objectives can be achieved outside of a physical lab, with some exceptions (such as, instrumentation, psychomotor, and sensory awareness), and that objectives fall into a hierarchy of importance [4]. Ethics, data analysis, communication, and teamwork were considered essential. Models, experiment, instrumentation, and safety were considered very important. Sensory awareness, psychomotor, learning from failure, and design were considered important.

MatDL investigators at MIT and KSU conducted student surveys to begin to address questions concerning the effectiveness of a virtual lab as well as the potential value of a digital library in supporting the experience [5]. A small group (8) of MIT students taking Solid State Chemistry Virtual Laboratory were asked to assess change in their understanding (1 = significantly worse, 3 = no change, 5 = strong improvement) of the 13 ABET laboratory objectives as a result of the virtual laboratory experience.

Survey results indicated students thought that the virtual lab was successful in improving their understanding of many of the 13 ABET laboratory objectives, with the most perceived improvement being associated with experimental, team work, ethics in research, and communication (Means 4.50, 4.50, 4.63, 4.75, respectively) [6]. These early results support the opinion that some lab objectives may be successfully achieved through virtual lab experience [4]. Three objectives that were associated with the most perceived improvement (team work, ethics in research, and communication) have been identified as essential objectives of the laboratory experience. A subset (3) of the MIT group of students also completed a survey that gathered opinions about MatDL’ MatDLs potential value (1 = very valuable, 3 = somewhat valuable, and 5 = not at all valuable) in accomplishing eight educational objectives [5]. In general, students expressed positive opinions with responses ranging from 1 to 3 (see Table 1). They expressed a very positive estimation of MatDL’ MatDLs potential to support a virtual laboratory experience and a similarly positive view regarding its potential to give students practical experience with licensing and publishing their own work; to support interaction with students at other institutions; and to increase student awareness of applications in materials science (all M = 1.33). Students were also quite positive about MatDL’ MatDLs potential to give students access to classmate’s publications; increase student interest in research; and make courses more interesting by making available related research data (Means 1.66, 2.0, 2.0, respectively). These preliminary results suggest that students view MatDL as potentially valuable in supporting a variety of educational objectives, including a virtual lab experience.

The use of digital libraries and related services within the scientific community is a relatively new development with the potential to change and improve communication and collaboration for researchers, educators, and students. One anticipated outcome of the investigation in the MatDL project is to reduce the time it takes for new knowledge generated in the laboratory to reach the classroom for the materials science community [7]. It may also encourage new collaborations both within and outside this community. The potential for new technologies and the conventions that develop around those technologies to encourage new collaboration between separate but related groups within and between scientific disciplines has been noted.

1. Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology. 2004. Criteria for accrediting engineering programs.
2. Borgman, C.L. 2001. Digital libraries and virtual universities. In F. T.Tschang & T. D. Senta (Eds.), Access to knowledge: new information technologies and the emergence of the virtual university. 207-242. Pergamon, New York.
3. Feisel, L. and Peterson G. 2002. A colloquy on learning objectives for engineering education laboratories. Proceedings of the American Society for Engineering Education Annual Conference,
Mission Bay, CA, June, 2002.
4. Rosa, A. 2003. The Challenge of Instructional Laboratories in Distance Education. ABET Annual Meeting October 31, 2003.
5. Bartolo, L.M., Lowe, C.S., Sadoway, D.R., Trapa, P.E. Large Introductory Science Courses & Digital Libraries. Proceedings of the 5th ACM/IEEE Joint Conference on Digital Libraries. 366-67, Denver, CO, USA, June 2005.
6. Bartolo, L.M., Lowe, C.S., Sadoway, D.R., Powell, A.C., and Glotzer, S.C. (2005, March). NSDL MatDL: Exploring digital library roles. DLib Magazine, 11(3). Available at doi:10.1045/march2005-bartolo or

7. Bartolo, L.M, Lowe C.S., Feng, L.Z., Patten, B. (2004). MatDL: Integrating Digital Libraries into Scientifi c Practice. Journal of Digital Information, 5(3), Article No. 297, 2004-08-23. Available at

About MatDL
The MatDL partnership includes information/library scientists and materials scientists at Kent State University, the Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (MSEL/NIST), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Michigan (U-M), Iowa State University (ISU), and Purdue University (Purdue). PI: Laura M. Bartolo (Materials Informatics Lab, KSU); CoPIs: Sharon C. Glotzer (Materials Science and Engineering, U-M), Adam C. Powell IV (Materials Science and Engineering, MIT), Krishna Rajan (Materials Science and Engineering, ISU) Donald R. Sadoway (Materials Science and Engineering, MIT); Senior Investigators: Diane Geraci (Science Libraries, U-M), Matt Krane (Purdue) James A. Warren, Deputy Director, and Vinod K. Tewary, Research Scientist (Materials Science and Engineering Laboratory, NIST).

MatDL is part of the National Science Digital Library project and is supported by National Science Foundation grant DUE-0532831. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NSF or NIST.


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