UniServe€Science News, Vol. 4, July 1996

The dry labs workshop

Ian Johnston is the director & Mary Peat is co-director of UniServe*Science

Why the workshop was mounted

On Friday, April 12, UniServe*Science held its first workshop, devoted to the topic of `dry labs'. The original motivations were clear. Many science departments in this country are finding difficulty in maintaining their traditional teaching programs in experimental laboratories, whether because of pressure of student numbers and the cost of laboratory work, or difficulties posed by the use of hazardous chemicals or animal experimentation or radioactive substances. It has been suggested many times that first year students could be offered alternative experiences to some of their traditional `wet' labs -- perhaps simulated laboratory experiments, perhaps structured computer managed tutorials. There is, after all, no doubt that practical skills can be taught, and taught well, by computer simulations -- teaching airline pilots or astronauts by flight simulators is an obvious example.

However there is sincere opposition to the very idea of `dry labs' from many academics, which mainly centres round the key role that experiment plays in science. They argue that to take away from students the reality of experimental experience, is to denature the subject itself.

In order to judge which of these points of view we should be most swayed by, we need answers to these two questions:

(1) have any departments in this country introduced dry labs successfully, as a major, formal part of their teaching curriculum? and

(2) how did they solve the problems they must have faced?

That is why this workshop was organized.

What we saw at the workshop

The workshop began with overviews given by speakers from two different perspectives -- from someone in a big multimedia unit (Jon Pearce, from the University of Melbourne's Science Multimedia Teaching Unit) and from someone with links to the scientific profession outside the University circuit (Rod Learmonth, who is a member of the editorial board of The Journal of Biochemical Education).

Next there were workshops run by two people who have been responsible for introducing a substantial program of computer experiences to first year students in their home departments, as alternatives to standard `wet labs' -- Rob Capon, School of Chemistry at Melbourne University, and Fred Pamula, Department of Biology at Flinders University.

There were demonstrations of particular packages which are being used as alternative-to-laboratory experiences, from Bill Loneragan (University of Western Australia) and Ralf Cord-Ruwish (Murdoch University). And lastly there were examples of materials designed to prepare students for traditional laboratory work -- "pre-lab" packages from Audrey Wilson and Roger Lewis of the University of Wollongong.

What we learned from the workshop

Teaching effectiveness

For those who might not have been convinced already, it was clearly demonstrated that it is possible to develop new materials which contribute substantially to the learning experiences of students in the laboratory setting. It was shown that computers can bring to life difficult concepts, especially in the visualization of three-dimensional structures in chemistry, biology and biochemistry. They can offer a rich compendium of resources on which students can graze at their leisure, which should, in principle, lay down patterns of learning they will use for the rest of their lives.

At the same time it was stressed that the development of these kinds of materials is inordinately time-consuming and costly. Were it not for the CAUT teaching development grant scheme, it is doubtful if many of the items on show would ever have seen the light of day. How the next generation of innovations is to be financed, or how any updating is to be achieved, is anybody's guess.

It was agreed however that the greatest area of deficiency at present lies in the evaluation of materials being produced. Flinders University takes steps to monitor how students perform in standard examinations after having been exposed to the new materials; but by and large the questions of whether the new materials really do improve learning is too difficult. Perhaps that is the next hurdle, and we can only hope that future teaching development initiatives will provide the necessary funding to ensure that research into student learning is part of the deal.

Teaching efficiency

Perhaps the most striking fact that emerged from the workshop was that, of the 200 or so university science departments in Australia, only a very small number indeed (of order 10) have actually replaced wet labs with dry labs. Of particular interest were the two examples where the first year practical (wet) laboratory teaching has been cut in half, and 50% of the time formerly allocated to that is now filled with computer-centred experiences. These are mainstream courses, taken by the majority of first year students in those institutions. The question begged to be answered: how did the two developers persuade their host departments to allow this Trojan horse into their midst?

There seemed to be two major considerations.

(a) The Melbourne model was careful to single out for replacement, only those particular learning exercises which didn't necessarily belong in a laboratory in the first place (construction of molecular models). "Real" laboratory experiments were left alone.

(b) The Flinders model took care to identify experiments which are particularly expensive (e.g., spectrophotometry) or dangerous, and to replace those. Again, the safe, inexpensive "real" experiments were not touched.

Perhaps it was this concern for the sensitivities of their colleagues which won the day.

In both cases, the projects were carried out because of the enthusiasm of particular persons, and the question must be asked: what will happen to those courses when those people leave, or go on sabbatical or move on to different teaching duties? With many teaching innovations, when the person responsible bows out, the innovation is often allowed to stop, simply because that is the easiest thing for the host department to do. In these two cases, since the dry lab courses are a major component in the curriculum, it would in fact be quite expensive for the department to replace them. Perhaps these two do represent a permanent change to the way we teach science. Only time will tell.

Ian Johnston & Mary Peat


Proceedings of the workshop are available (free) in HTML and PDF from UniServe*Science's web site at http://www.usyd.edu.au/su/SCH or a paper version can be purchased for $5.00. Send cheque to:
Dry Labs Workshop
UniServe*Science (F07)
University of Sydney NSW 2006

Workshop participants