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Students Embrace Virtual Labs; College Educators Have Doubts

By Sam Dillon
THE NEW YORK TIMES

When the Internet was just beginning to shake up American education, a chemistry professor photographed thousands of test tubes holding molecular solutions and, working with video game designers, created a simulated laboratory that allows students to mix chemicals in virtual beakers and watch the reactions.

In the years since, that virtual chemistry laboratory — as well as other simulations allowing students to dissect virtual critters or to peer into tidal pools in search of virtual anemone — has become a widely used science teaching tool. The virtual chemistry laboratory alone has some 150,000 students seated at computer terminals around the country to try experiments that would be too costly or dangerous to do at their local high schools.

“Some kids figure out how to blow things up in half an hour,” said the professor, Brian F. Woodfield of Brigham Young University.

Now, however, a dispute with potentially far-reaching consequences has flared over how far the Internet can go in displacing the brick-and-mortar laboratory.

Prompted by skeptical university professors, the College Board, one of the most powerful organizations in American education, is questioning whether Internet-based laboratories are an acceptable substitute for the hands-on culturing of gels and peering through microscopes that have long been essential ingredients of American laboratory science.

As part of a broader audit of the thousands of high school courses that display its Advanced Placement trademark, the board has recruited panels of university professors and experts in Internet-based learning to scrutinize the quality of online laboratories used in Web-based AP science courses.

“Professors are saying that simulations can be really good, that they use them to supplement their own lab work, but that they’d be concerned about giving credit to students who have never had any experience in a hands-on lab,” said Trevor Packer, the board’s executive director for Advanced Placement. “You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner.”

Internet-based educators are seeking to persuade the board, and the public, that their virtual laboratories are educationally sound, pointing out that their students earn high scores on the AP exams. They also say online laboratories are often the only way advanced science can be taught in isolated rural schools or impoverished urban ones.