‘Ding dong… ding dong…’, the school bell rings at the end of a class. There is always a limitation of class hours and laboratory space when conducting experiments in traditional science lessons. Students are conducting experiments in groups usually and they rarely have the opportunity to do experiments all on their own. In recent years, secondary schools have made good use of blended learning and introduced remote experiment tools to enable students to control university laboratory apparatus remotely from home. This learning mode not only provides ample time for conducting the experiments in a safe environment, but also enables teachers to keep track of students’ learning progress and adopt appropriate teaching strategies. Worksheets of various levels can also be designed to facilitate effective learning for students with different levels of ability.
Traditional Laboratory: Non-readable Results and Inaccurate Data
Ms Yau Wing Yee, Head of Physics Department and Coordinator of STEAM of St. Stephen’s Girls’ College shared her experience in the interview. She said even all the lights in the school laboratory were turned off when demonstrating the ‘interference phenomenon’ in a physics class, students could still barely observe the interference pattern formed by the laser passing through the slit. The quality of the formed pattern was also not satisfactory. There are limitations due to the laboratory environment, light sources, and apparatus in the school. ‘The environment became too dark for students to read the scale of the ruler in the laboratory. The interference patterns formed are dim, thick and scattered. It was almost impossible to read the scale accurately, not to mention taking the readings for calculations,’ she said. Ms Yau believes these limitations could lead to glaring errors in data collection, and it was hard for students to even observe the effects on interference patterns under different wavelengths and widths of slits.
When asked for comments on some virtual experiment platforms available in the market, Ms Yau believed that those platforms may have failed to provide a realistic experiment experience to students. ‘Students are going to get an expected experiment result, which is an illusion without a technical basis. These platforms first manipulate the data for students to take the readings and conclude with a presumed answer. The whole process may not be very meaningful for learners,’ she stated.
Remote Laboratory: Access to Experiments Anywhere Anytime
Ms Yau adopted a web-based remote laboratory platform developed by the Department of Applied Physics at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) called ‘Borderless Lab 365’ a few years ago. The platform lets students in higher forms remotely control the apparatus at the PolyU laboratory in real time and collect experiment data at home. Ms Yau pointed out the platform provides a realistic experiment environment in which students can clearly read and record the data through a real time recording device.
Students no longer have to complete the experiment and jot down the data collected as they used to do by the end of the experiment class. They can now carry out experiments for unlimited number of times with the apparatus on the remote laboratory platform. Even in late hours, students can conduct the experiments on their own without limitations of time and space. ‘If students want to take a closer look or collect the data again, they are free to conduct the experiment as many times as they wish. This mode of conducting experiments is relatively boundless — what students learn is not predestined by any framework’, Ms Yau added.
To address the learning diversity of students, Ms Yau has designed experiment worksheets of different levels, ranging from the simple tasks like data collection to the advanced tasks like investigation experiment, to sharpen students’ skills in experiment design and report writing. Experiment worksheets of an appropriate level will be distributed to students, who are asked to conduct the experiment at home. She will explain the key points in the worksheets to students after they have conducted the experiments to cater for the learning diversity of students. Even in times of the epidemic, student can still conduct experiments online. ‘All lab reports can be submitted, modified, and discussed online. Learning will not be undermined when students cannot physically be present in a laboratory,’ she elaborated.
Junior Form Students Learning Greenhouse Effect through Observing Ecosphere
In addition to inducing effective learning outcomes, performing experiments in the remote laboratory reinforces students’ interest in learning. Ms Yau said students like the feeling of operating the laboratory apparatus remotely. ‘I heard positive feedbacks from students so far. Students like it because they haven’t tried remote experiments before, and using the apparatus remotely feels like controlling a spaceship because they can see the apparatus moving,’ she mentioned. As the school understands the unique advantages of the remote laboratory, it plans to continue using the platform even after the epidemic ends. The school is also extending the use of the platform to other subjects and classes, such as the experiment related to ‘Greenhouse Effect’ in Science lessons in junior forms. Students can understand the impact of carbon dioxide concentration on our environment by observing the correlation between carbon dioxide concentration and temperature in an ecosphere that is illuminated by a light source.