Discovery Magazine

Evaluating Students' Learning and Attitudes in a Virtual Chemistry Laboratory

Drs. Winkelmann (PI, Florida Tech) and Wendy Keeney-Kennicutt (co-PI, Texas A&M) will investigate (1) how the virtual laboratory environment (Second Life or the real world) affects students’ ability to achieve the learning goals of the laboratory experiment, including content knowledge and kinesthetic skills, and (2) how the laboratory environment affects students’ attitudes towards learning chemistry in the virtual laboratory and performing laboratory work.

The PIs will answer these questions using data collected from all General Chemistry I Laboratory students. Assessment methods include interviews, surveys, and lab quizzes and lab reports. Differences in student outcomes due to academic background or demographic characteristics will be analyzed. A total of 400 students will perform experiments in Second Life and thousands more will participate as the control group.

Intellectual Merits

Although many educators use Second Life in their classes, this study will be the first to evaluate students’ learning and attitudes in a Second Life chemistry virtual laboratory. Based on previous research, SL experiments are expected to lead to more favorable opinions of chemistry by students and better academic performance in the virtual laboratory. Findings that SL experiments have a positive effect on student learning and attitudes about chemistry will have a transformative effect on the way educators teach general chemistry laboratory courses. This is particularly important in light of the growing trend towards online distance learning. This project builds upon the investigators’ ongoing education research in Second Life.

Broader Impacts

The project’s SL experiments will be easily adaptable within other schools’ curricula. Because they require only minor, periodic maintenance Texas A&M will continue to include them in the General Chemistry I Laboratory curriculum. The investigators will widely disseminate results to the virtual education and chemical education audiences. With the ever-increasing use of online technology and emphasis on distance learning at all academic levels, STEM educators should understand how students learn in virtual worlds and how to design the virtual experience to maximize students’ educational gains. The potential availability of SL chemistry experiments primarily impacts women because they make up 65% of all distance learning students, worldwide. In this study, 60% of the student participants are female. Overall, SL experiments will provide more students with access to a high-quality laboratory education in a virtual laboratory setting.

There is a potential cost savings if students use a school’s pre-existing IT resources instead of expensive chemicals to perform general chemistry experiments. Experiments in Second Life are inherently safer than actual experiments and produce no chemical waste, lessening the potentially harmful effects on students and our environment.