Innovative Teaching: The Rise of Online Science Labs

By Katie Berryhill
Fulltime Faculty, School of Science and Technology at American Public University

The development of science literacy and critical thinking skills are a primary reason for requiring college students to take laboratory science. The goal is to understand what science is—a way of thinking and learning about the world around us, rather than merely a collection of facts (especially as those facts are often supplanted by future knowledge). We need to teach students about the way that science is actually done, not as a set of facts to memorize. Some laboratory activities in introductory astronomy courses are “cookbook”-style, taking students step-by-step through a process, with the goal of getting the “right” answer. They do not, therefore, help students to understand the nature of science as an evolving chain of questions and evidence-based conclusions.

In our introduction to astronomy course at American Public University, we use innovative “backwards faded scaffolding” (BFS) labs, developed by education researchers (the CAPER Team, led by Dr. Tim Slater at the University of Wyoming). Students are guided through a process of asking research questions, determining a procedure for collecting data that might allow them to answer those questions, analyzing the data and coming to an evidence-based conclusion. The scaffolding is gradually removed from these tasks, starting at the end, so that by the end of the exercise, students complete the entire process on their own. The reason the scaffolding is removed “backwards” is that research has shown students have a much more difficult time with the process of asking a good, answerable research question than they do analyzing data to come to an evidence-based conclusion.

Learning about scientific inquiry through labs
While these exercises provide students with a scaffolded approach to learning about the nature of scientific inquiry, they also use pre-existing data from a variety of sources. Sources include web-based solar system simulators (sometimes known as “desktop planetarium” software), databases of extrasolar planet discoveries and spacecraft images. In fact, the CAPER team won the NASA Hubble Space Telescope “Top Stars” award in recognition of their lab that uses the Hubble Ultra Deep Field image to engage students in learning (and asking questions about) characteristics of galaxies. This data is real, but there is a lack of connection between the students and the process of collecting that data.

My current research is looking at whether providing students with a connection to the collection of data they use to ask and answer laboratory research questions might be valuable. Is it valuable to be providing students with a connection to their data and research questions? Most students in introductory astronomy courses (especially online courses) do not have access to telescopes, but robotic telescopes accessible via the Internet are becoming more prevalent.

The first goal of this research is to look at the experiences of students who use robotic telescopes to capture an astronomical image. As education researchers, we have a “gut feeling” that students would be more connected to this image than to one from another source, but we want some good evidence one way or the other. Information will be gathered about students’ perspectives on this experience—not only how they describe their experience of using a robotic telescope, but also the meaning that they derive from it. Specifically, we want to see whether “ownership” of an image, by virtue of “creating” it themselves, leads to a different meaning for the student. We hope the results of this research will lead to further innovations in teaching that inspire students to be actively engaged in inquiry about the world around them.

About the Author:
Katie Berryhill is an instructor at American Public University System. She holds a bachelor’s in astronomy & astrophysics from the University of Pennsylvania, a master’s in space studies from the University of North Dakota, and is a University of Wyoming science education doctoral student. She is part of the Center for Astronomy and Physics Education Research (CAPER) Team.


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