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Evaluating Students’ Learning and Attitudes in a Virtual Chemistry Laboratory: 1140841

Principal Investigator: Kurt Winkelmann
CoPrincipal Investigator(s): Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt, Debra Fowler
Organization: Florida Institute of Technology

The project is investigating the benefits of students performing simulated chemistry laboratory experiments in the 3D immersive virtual world of Second Life. Researchers at Florida Institute of Technology are creating the environment and the virtual laboratories which are realistic, fully interactive simulations of their real world analogues. The project is engaging multiple sections of students enrolled in General Chemistry 1 Laboratory at Texas A&M University to complete several weeks of lab activities in Second Life to complement the remainder of their lab course experiences which are traditional. Other sections of students will conduct only traditional laboratory experiences. The two sections are completing identical or nearly identical experiences whether in the traditional lab or the virtual environment. The investigators are answering two research questions: (i) How does the traditional or virtual laboratory environment affect students’ ability to achieve the learning goals of the laboratory experiment, including knowledge and kinesthetic skills? (ii) How does the laboratory environment affect students’ attitudes towards learning chemistry in the laboratory and performing laboratory work?

This project is providing understanding of students’ attitudes and content knowledge of general chemistry laboratory activities performed in a traditional manner as compared to that performed in an online virtual world that also embraces social interactions. By the use of an on-line practicum, offered to all students regardless of the learning cohort in which they participated, the project is measuring students’ gains in kinesthetic (“hands-on”) laboratory skills.

Prior research suggests that virtual laboratory experiences lead to more favorable opinions of chemistry by students, and to better academic performance. Verification of this outcome can have a transformative effect on the way introductory chemistry laboratories are taught. With challenged budgets and expanding populations, other institutions of higher education may be interested in adapting the Virtual Laboratory approach into their own curriculum. Results from this project could help improve the outcomes of on-line and distance education approaches. The virtual laboratory with its integrated social aspects, is providing more students, and students of underrepresented groups, with access to high quality laboratory education.

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