The educational benefits of students performing simulated chemistry laboratory experiments in the 3D, immersive, virtual world of Second Life (SL) are being investigated at Texas A&M University by students enrolled in General Chemistry II Laboratory, with funding provided by a 3 year NSF grant. This fall, 90 students have completed two weeks of lab activities in Second Life while 400 other students complete the same experiments in a real laboratory. In Spring 2014, 100 students will perform SL experiments and over 2000 students will participate in the control group. This will be repeated for the 2014-2015 school year.
This project will answer the following research questions:
• How does the laboratory environment (Second Life or the real world) affect students’ ability to achieve the learning goals of the laboratory experiment, including content knowledge and kinesthetic skills?
• How does the laboratory environment affect students’ attitudes towards learning chemistry in the laboratory and performing laboratory work?
Our assessment methods include surveys, focus groups, pre/post lab quizzes, lab reports and a practical exercise in which student assemble parts of a laboratory apparatus. Differences in student outcomes due to academic background or demographic characteristics will be analyzed.
This study is the first to evaluate students’ learning and attitudes in a Second Life chemistry laboratory. If we find that SL experiments lead to better student attitude and academic performance in the lab, the information would be most useful for (1) designing new on-line distance learning science lab experiments and (2) creating a viable alternative for schools which do not offer chemistry laboratory courses.
What Can Students Learn from Virtual Labs?
Virtual worlds offer chemical educators an interesting new platform for faculty and students to interact in order to augment or even replace existing classroom and laboratory sessions. Virtual worlds provide a visually rich, three dimensional environment in which users interact with each other and virtual objects. Each user controls an avatar, the user’s representation in the virtual world. By creating content for the world, educators can design new learning activities that would not be possible in the real world.
Second Life is the mostly widely used and well known virtual world and is maintained by Linden Labs. Users communicate with each other through audio using a headset and microphone or through instant messages and they interact with their surroundings by clicking on objects with the mouse pointer. Access to Second Life is free (with some age restrictions for young users). The success of Second Life is due to Linden Labs providing the platform for the virtual world but allowing users to create their own content (similar to YouTube maintaining the website but users uploading their own videos). Users can write programming code within Second Life to create objects and control their properties using Linden Scripting Language, a language similar to C+ and JAVA.
Second Life is not a game - there are no predetermined goals, scoring or inherent competition. Instead, Second Life is designed to promote socialization, communication and exploration among avatars. Second Life has its own economy based on the Linden dollar (L$), which users can exchange for real world currencies. Users purchase Linden dollars so that they can buy items for their avatar. Users can purchase land in Second Life (server space) in order to own and maintain their own section of the world. Land owners can modify land features and control access to their property. This is important to educators who might only want students to enter their part of Second Life.
Use of Second Life in education is growing, as is the research showing its effectiveness. Students can feel more comfortable attending class in Second Life compared to a real classroom.(1) Since many students attend class online, Second Life can provide a sense of “presence”, which is important in distance learning classes.(2-4) Many studies report that students respond positively to learning within virtual worlds when added to an existing course(2,5-8) and influences their grades as well.(6-8) Educators in information systems,(5) computer science,(6) biology,(7) medicine(9, 10) and chemistry(11-15) have all used Second Life for their courses. Two reviews explain how chemists use Second Life in the classroom.(11, 16)
Dr. Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt, project Co-PI, completed an extensive study of using Second Life to teach students about 3D molecular shapes and Valence Shell Electron Pair Repulsion (VSEPR) theory. She employed a quasi-experimental re-/post-test control group research design study on her two Texas A&M general chemistry lecture classes (a total of 480 students). The experimental group performed activities with 3D molecules in Second Life while the control group did the same activities using 2D images which were screen shots of SL images. Ultimately, she found that students working in a 3-D environment did show subtle but significant differences in increased student ability by the SL group for interpreting routine 2D presentations of 3D chemical structures using solid lines, dashed lines and wedges.(13, 14, 15, 17)
Although STEM educators use Second Life in a variety of ways, no virtual laboratory experiments are available. More importantly, it is not clear how well such lab experiments might compare to real world experiments in terms of students’ learning and attitudes.
A year ago, we received a 3 year NSF TUES grant entitled “Evaluating Students’ Learning and Attitudes in a Virtual Chemistry Laboratory.” The first year was spent developing assessment tools and two laboratories that were as identical as possible to two laboratories that were part of the curriculum in second semester general chemistry laboratory at Texas A&M University; we used two professional SL programmers in the development process. Our goals were to measure students’ attitudes towards the real world and virtual experiments, their ability to achieve the learning goals of both types of experiments and the students’ development of kinesthetic skills during the experiments.
Here is a link to a 20 minute video tour of the facilities:
Figures 1-3 show the Second Life environment.
Figure 1. The virtual laboratory building on Chemistry World Island
Figure 2. The virtual labroom.
Figure 3. Super-sized equipment for the first SL experiment behind Dr. Keeney-Kennicutt’s avatar
The lab experiments were designed to mimic as closely as possible the actual lab experiments. In Second Life, students assemble equipment and perform the experiment by clicking on chemicals and pieces of laboratory equipment, and use menus to select other options. They wear headsets with microphones to communicate with their lab partner and TA. Students record their own data and their results depend on their actions, just like in a real chemistry laboratory experience. A student’s mistake in performing the procedure or inattention to details affects the experimental results. Although the mathematical equations that are a part of the experiment’s programming code provide perfectly precise results, the code also introduces a small degree of randomness into the results so that the data “looks real.” Just as in a real classroom, no two sets of data from the SL experiments are exactly the same. Students still have to read volumes in graduated cylinders, graduated pipets and burets. The first SL experiment, Experiment 2: Molar Mass Determination, involved collecting gas over water and the ideal gas law to determine the molar mass of the gas in a butane lighter. The second SL experiment, Experiment 3: Precipitation Titrations, involved 7 argentometric titrations, to determine the salinity of 2 San Antonio bay water samples at one location in the bay at two different times. Each pair of students had samples from a different part of the bay.
Fall 2013 Pilot Study
This fall was our pilot study. Four experienced teaching assistants were chosen who would teach one section in SL and the other as normal. Their schedules determined which sections were chosen as the experimental group. On the first day of lab during week 1, students signed their IRB consent forms and took an on-line survey. Four sections (69 students) were in the experimental group and 19 sections (371 students) were in the control group. Here were the student demographics:
27% engineering, 18% education, 16% agriculture, 14% science, 11% biomedical science plus 14% in geoscience, liberal arts, business and general studies.
50% sophomore, 21% freshman, 18% junior and 11% senior
Semesters at TAMU:
30% less than 1 semester, 27% 2 semesters, 20% 3 semesters
98% 18-24 with 2% under 18 and 1% 25-34
56% female and 44% male
66% white (non-Hispanic), 15% Hispanic, 10% Asian, 5% mixed and 3% black.
Among other facts, we found that 99% of students had access to computers or laptops with 94% using them daily and 34% own or have access to a tablet. The top 5 uses for computers are: email, doing homework, using social media, watching videos and doing research. However, 87% had little to no experience with online virtual worlds. Training is critical for a student’s success in a virtual world. During week 1, the experimental group was introduced to SL on the laboratory computers. Each student created their avatar and was able to find their way within the program to the area where they would be professionally trained. Our trainer is located out-of-state. She and the co-PI met with 12 groups of students the following week within Second Life for a 30 – 40 minute training period to give proper lab attire and lab goggles to their avatars, teach them to read a buret and graduated cylinder, give access to the study area on the Chemistry World island and find the classroom. There is a learning curve to Second Life. Students need to feel comfortable controlling their avatars in SL, so they can concentrate on doing the experiment and not the software. As a note, the first lab was short, so students who missed training were able to get trained as well as complete the lab.
During week 2, all students did the first lab as normal. For weeks 3 and 4, the experimental group met at their normal time at a nearby computer lab and the control group met in their regular lab room to do the second and the third labs. See Figures 4, 5, 6, and 7. At the start of each period, all students would take a 5 question multiple choice quiz on the procedure. Then the TA either in SL or the normal lab would show a PowerPoint presentation explaining the lab and the lab would begin. As students finished, they would take the identical quiz again. During week 5, a practicum on the week 3 lab procedure was given to the 8 sections taught by the experienced TAs: 4 SL sections and 4 control sections. During week 5, the 4 TAs took an on-line survey and in week 6, they participated in a focus group. In week 8, the control group took an on-line attitudinal survey during lab and the experimental group took a lengthier similar survey in lab. At the end of the week, volunteers from the experimental group took part in a focus group. A subset of both the experimental and control groups took an additional on-line survey to help the assessment team better understand and interpret the attitudinal survey results from Week 8. The assessment team also received all student lab report grades for the two labs under study.
Figure 4a. Prelab lecture in the SL classroom.
Figure 4b. Prelab lecture in the computer lab.
Figure 5a. TA giving prelab lecture
Figure 5b. Students listening to prelab lecture.
Figure 6a. Students in SL lab preparing to begin their experiments.
Figure 6b. The actual lab at TAMU
Figure 7a,b. Students completing Exp. 2 in SL.
Here are links to videos, demonstrating the Second Life activities in the computer lab.
Preliminary Results and Discussion
Here are some of our findings for the Fall 2013 Pilot Study:
No significant differences were seen between the SL group and the control group in
We did see some intriguing differences between the two groups:
The data is still being analyzed for this pilot study. We still have the TA survey, TA focus group, the student focus group and their written comments to examine. We hope to glean more interesting finding as we move forward with the study for 3 more semesters.
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