Remote control physics labs for classrooms across the nation

Posted on October 24, 2013

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High-tech science experiment in a classroom of your choice: FAR Labs being trialled at Penleigh Essendon Grammar school.

High-tech science experiments  in a classroom of your choice: FAR Labs being trialled at Penleigh Essendon Grammar.

With its  reputation for innovative and high-tech education, La Trobe University is offering new-generation e-learning opportunities streamed directly into Australian secondary schools.

Called FAR Labs (Freely-Accessible Remote Laboratories) the system enables high school students to control state-of-the-art equipment at La Trobe’s Physics Department and gain access to the Australian Synchrotron.

‘This will benefit kids all over Australia especially those in rural areas,’ said one of the project’s organisers, Dr David Hoxley. ‘All they need is a computer with an internet connection, not an expensive trip to a university.’

FAR Labs was created to increase enrolments in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. By official opening week at least 100 teachers from 50 schools in Victoria, Western Australia and Queensland had registered to use FAR Labs with a dozen workshops held from Bendigo to Townsville to demonstrate the program.

Dr Hoxley: direct student engagement as early as possible

Dr Hoxley: direct student engagement as early as possible.

Catering for different ways of learning

Designed to boost engagement between secondary schools and universities, the system also takes into consideration the different ways children learn.

‘Giving high school students access to next-generation resources and research might just inspire them to engage with these subjects for the long haul,’ Dr Hoxley added.

The brains behind the project are La Trobe academics Dr Brian Abbey, Dr Hoxley and Professor Paul Pigram. It is supported by partner organisations Quantum Victoria, James Cook University and Curtin University.

‘At its heart,’ Dr Hoxley said, ‘science education involves knowledge transfer, communication, engagement and commitment.

‘The internet together with contemporary computing, visualisation and collaboration tools provides a remarkable platform for developing new approaches to science education.’

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb: hoping universities and schools can introduce such projects on a significant scale.

Great start for new inspiration

Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb said he hoped the FAR Labs initiative would inspire more students to study physics.

This follows last year’s report by his office – Mathematics, Engineering, and Science in the National Interest.

‘We identified how the teaching of science and mathematics in an inspiring way might attract more students to them.

‘An initiative like FAR Labs is a great start. I hope universities and secondary schools around the country can introduce projects like this on a significant scale,’ Professor Chubb said.

Dr Hoxley said: ‘The most effective way of increasing student numbers in science and maths is to engage them directly in the university environment – as early as possible.’

He expects the project to have an immediate and measurable impact on secondary education and increase the number of students who choose to study science.

‘Our kids learn in a variety of ways: reading, watching, doing or listening. It is almost impossible for teachers to provide all these mediums in a single class. FAR Labs material can be accessed in all of these formats, enabling the student to choose how he or she best learns,’ he said.

Radiation to environmental science

Initial subjects available include the power of different types of radiation, structural analysis of materials and environmental science issues.

La Trobe’s Hannah Coughlan and Paras Atsikidis in a radiation lab on the Melbourne campus. The lab is controlled remotely by school students to sample various materials for levels and types of radiation.

La Trobe’s Hannah Coughlan and Paras Atsikidis in a radiation lab on the Melbourne campus. The lab is controlled remotely by school students to sample materials for levels and types of radiation.

Apart from virtual hands-on lab experiences for students, teaching materials and technical notes can also be downloaded.

This will allow students and teachers to choose a level of engagement appropriate for their needs and abilities.

‘Educational paradigms shift every so often and today we are witness to the e-learning revolution,’ Dr Hoxley concluded.

The initiative is government funded under the Australian Maths and Science Partnership Program (AMSPP). – Stephanie Pradier

See also:

Cool science, a million times brighter than the sun 

The ‘Imax’ of science labs – next generation facilities