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At WPI, some students are learning it's OK to peek

WORCESTER, Mass. There was a time when peeking at another student's work during class was a problem. Then again, there was a time when only televisions had clickers, not classrooms.

Starting in January, not only do students in the undergraduate biology lab sections at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) have clickers, they are using them in a new way that promises to improve student-achievement and enhance teaching during science labs. It's all part of a novel academic technology suite, dubbed "The Connected Lab," developed at WPI through a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation.

The Connected Lab has three main components: real-time display of student lab results during class; remote access to all student data for analysis after the lab; and an online library of multimedia content demonstrating lab procedures that students can view at their convenience to help prepare for class or to use as a resource in the lab.

During a lab session, students use hand-held remote devices (clickers) to enter their data as their experiments progress. All data is immediately displayed, by lab group, on a projection screen for the whole class to see. "The students like to see how they are doing compared to other groups, and it helps me to be more effective teaching the lab," says Michael Buckholt, principal investigator of The Connected Lab program and instructor in WPI's Department of Biology and Biotechnology. "When the lab is in progress, I can't be looking over every student's shoulder, all the time. But with this system, I can quickly see which groups are on track. If any groups are getting into trouble, I can go right away to the group that needs intervention and help them through it. When we catch mistakes early, it makes the rest of the lab more meaningful."

The Connected Lab project is also designed to minimize time taken up with discussions of routine set-up and experimental procedures, thereby giving the students more time to focus on the science. To that end, starting last fall, several groups of WPI students who were working on their required Interactive Qualifying Project (a project which relates technology and science to societal or human needs) began producing video clips and multimedia content pieces explaining the "pre-lab" information. "It's all been working very well," says Kate Beverage, manager of WPI's Technology for Teaching and Learning Support Services, the group coordinating the technical elements of the initiative. "The students who produced the video content were extremely motivated, and approached it as a true research project. They've tried different production methodssome with music, some without, some using humor, some more seriousand they will gather data about what works best for the students using the material."

Once a Connected Lab session is completed, students can log on to the WPI network to access their own data, and the data obtained by other groups in their class. With more data to analyze, students have the opportunity to make more thoughtful interpretations and conclusions about the lab results. The access to other groups' data also helps students who, for a variety of reasons, may not get enough experimental data on their own to complete the lab. "If students do something wrong during their experiments, then they may not get any useful data," said Jill Rulfs, associate professor and associate head of the Biology and Biotechnology Department. "We want them to learn from those mistakes, of course, but we also want them to have access to data so they can do the analysis, the statistical procedures, the interpretation, and hypothesizing, which are important parts of what we're trying to teach."

Clickers as classroom tools have been proliferating at schools and universities in the United States for several years. Typically, they are used to take attendance or to permit students to respond to multiple-choice questions posed for discussion during lectures or when taking tests. The Connected Lab initiative, however, significantly expands the use of clicker technology so to assess its impact, WPI has partnered with the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts to conduct a detailed evaluation and report on the results of the initiative.

"What's really wonderful about this project is that we were brought in during the development phase, to build an evaluation component into this from the start," says Paula Quinn, research manager at the UMass Donahue Institute. "Last year, we collected data from a comparison groupstudents in similar lab sections at WPI not using the new technology. This year, we'll be collecting data from the students using the system, and we'll see if there are any differences. We'll focus on student engagement in the lab, student independence, and student efficiency, and see what impact the technology may have."

The Connected Lab is a three-year project. Last year, baseline data was collected and planning completed for the launch. This year, the biology lab sections will use The Connected Lab and the Department of Physics will develop its plan for using the model. Next year, the physics labs will implement the program and the Donahue Institute will complete its evaluation. If the initiative demonstrably improves student learning and performance, WPI plans to extend its use and potentially build a technology platform that could be leveraged at other universities.

In the fall of 2008, to prepare for the January launch in the biology labs, WPI piloted the real-time data display and collection elements of the system in one biology lab section, and the results were encouraging. "Based on the pilot program, we saw students were enthusiastic about using the system and were much more engaged in the lab," Professor Rulfs says. "This is a research program, and we'll have to wait and see what the results are in a year, but so far we are optimistic that using these technologies in this new way will have a positive impact."


Contact: Michael Cohen
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

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