Brigham Young University's Virtual ChemLab simulates a complete instructional laboratory environment to provide learners with effective laboratory learning experiences.
How this practice supports access: [updated 4/17/06] The need for access to meaningful laboratory learning experiences has become more important; an increasing number of majors require a significant chemistry background, reflecting the unprecedented impact of chemistry on society. Post-secondary chemistry courses now enroll over one million students annually; Brigham Young University (BYU) alone has over 5,000 students enrolled in general chemistry courses and more than 3,000 students in the organic chemistry sequence. Laboratory learning experiences in chemistry are meant to connect theory with practice, teach laboratory technique, and instill foundational cognitive and analytical skills. Unfortunately, due to severe time constraints, large numbers of students, costs, and other factors, laboratory learning in practice is too often a narrow, "cookbook"-like experience where students follow written directions to get expected results, with little thought about what they are supposed to learn. With funding from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Eduction, BYU created two interactive computer simulations called Virtual ChemLab: General Chemistry Laboratories and Virtual ChemLab: Organic Synthesis and Organic Qualitative Analysis. The General Chemistry Laboratories currently contain simulations of Inorganic Qualitative Analysis, Experiments in Quantum Chemistry, and Gas Properties. Future simulations will also include Titrations and Calorimetry. Virtual ChemLab was designed to demonstrate the feasibility of simulating a complete instructional laboratory environment sufficiently to accomplish effective instruction. In the process, Virtual ChemLab provides access to effective laboratory learning experiences for many more learners in less time. Development on all six chemistry laboratory simulations was completed in the Fall of 2004, so that VCL now includes sophisticated laboratories for Inorganic Qualitative Analysis, Fundamental Experiments in Quantum Chemistry, Gas Properties, Titration Experiments, Calorimetry, and Organic Synthesis and Qualitative Analysis. The development team is currently working on a set of physics laboratories, the first one, Mechanics be completed in Summer 2006. The other labs that will be completed in 2007 include Density/Buoyancy, Optics, and Circuits. The plan is to combine the physics laboratories together to produce a Virtual Physical Science product and a Virtual Physics product. VCL currently has over 150,000 users and expects that to rise significantly when the Virtual Physical Science product is finished.
Organic ChemLab was first implemented in Spring 2001. During the first term, students completed six related assignments in less than half the time (9.3 hours vs. ~20 hours) these assignments would have taken to complete in an actual laboratory. Student satisfaction comments also provided evidence of increased access to learning opportunities. Out of 42 student satisfaction-related comments, one-third of them cited ChemLab's ability to save time, while 17% stated that ChemLab was easy and convenient to use. Another 17% of the comments cited student satisfaction with being able to "play" with the program and explore topics they chose and to explore the consequences of various decisions in the virtual laboratory, for instance practicing the reactions before completing their graded assignments. Several students (10%) also cited ChemLab supports students' ability to understand, review, and explore previously discussed topics in more detail; the quickness and efficiency of Organic ChemLab allowed them to explore many more reactions and possibilities. Despite these reported satisfactions, the majority of students reported that they did not learn anything from completing the assignments given to them on Organic ChemLab, believing instead that all of their chemistry knowledge came from in-person laboratory experiences. However, information gathered from seven in-person "think-aloud" interviews organic chemistry students enrolled in the course during spring and summer 2001 Terms proved differently. Students were observed by evaluators and asked various questions encouraging them to explain the steps they took while completing an assignment. A majority of the students felt that Organic ChemLab allowed them to focus on the "why" of the actual chemistry rather than the instructions to perform techniques. See cited articles below for more recent research results.
The original development costs were funded by Brigham Young University and a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Virtual ChemLab is now marketed through Pearson/Prentice-Hall -- see the ChemLab web site for more details.
B.F. Woodfield, H.R. Catlin, G.L. Waddoups, M.S. Moore, R. Swan, R. Allen, and G. Bodily, "The Virtual ChemLab Project: A Realistic and Sophisticated Simulation of Inorganic Qualitative Analysis", J. Chem. Ed. 81, 1672-1678 (2004) Abstract: see link below.
EP info updated 4/17/06. Comments about VCL from Brian Woodfield, 4/12/06: "[These] laboratories focus on the thinking and decision making and not on the lab technique...We are trying to teach kids how to ask and answer the why questions, how to interpret data, how to make conclusions, how to collect the right data, how to analyze that data, and then how to decide what to do next. Although we find that our simulations are very effective as pre-labs and laboratory supplements, their true power comes as homework, quizzes, group work, and projects. The kids eat these labs up and learn in ways never available before."