UniServe*Science News, Vol. 4, July 1996

From the Director

A community of university science teachers

On page 5 of this newsletter there is a report of the first workshop run by UniServe*Science -- on the topic of `dry' labs. Nearly a hundred academics from all over the country attended that workshop, and we should like to take this opportunity, up front, of thanking those deans of science who contributed to the travel costs of those who attended.

To me, as director, the most important thing to come out of the day was the feeling of community that seemed to have been engendered. The attendees came from all branches of science, from large universities and small, from all states of the Commonwealth. They had different needs and different experiences, but were united by their common professional interest in the teaching of science.

This commonality of outlook seems to me to be worth fostering. Anyone who has worked in the development of IT teaching materials is aware that it can be a very lonely business. All too often you are the only one in your department interested in that kind of thing, and you are forever battling to get others to appreciate, and to use, what you are producing. Those who were at the workshop have now met one another. It is to be hoped that when they go back to their own departments they will use the contacts they have made to share the burden of what they are doing. In a very real way, we have all become part of a professional community.

The day ended with a wrap-up session. Two interesting items emerged in that session. Firstly there was the question of whether the replacement of `wet' labs by `dry' labs was right, in principle. Given that the workshop was focussed on the experiences of some departments which had in fact replaced some traditional `wet' laboratory experiments by alternatives, it was especially interesting that, of all those who attended, and who were all there because (presumably) they were pre-disposed to look favourably on the idea of dry labs, not one believed that science courses should completely abandon the ideal of having students perform "real" experiments. Instead everyone believed that the proper job of the new technology was to enhance what students got out of laboratories, whether by pre-lab packages, or by streamlining analysis of results, or by better graphical representations of theoretical models -- or by replacing some experiments.

The other thing that surfaced was the significance of the enormous costs of the new technology. There were many stories swapped of the severe strain it was putting on home departments. It may well be that the crippling expense of re-equipping computer labs every few years may yet sink the whole enterprise. But at least there seemed to be agreement that the financial burden of developing materials can be contained.

The way universities organize their teaching has often been likened to a cottage industry. Each teacher develops their own course from the ground up with little reference to what has gone before. In some respects this is a feature, not a bug. It guards against students' continuing to receive ideas and opinions that have passed their use-by date. But, because of the expense of the new technologies, we must join the industrial revolution. We cannot all afford to develop our own materials. We must get into the habit of working in consortiums and sharing the load. The fact that this workshop brought together many of the active developers in the country may make that goal just a little less remote, and perhaps UniServe*Science might be able to take a leading role in making such consortiums happen.

Ian Johnston