Open Letter to the College Board What an AP Virtual Lab Must Do How Smart Science Labs Match AP Lab Criteria

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1 Open Letter to the College Board What an AP Virtual Lab Must Do How Smart Science Labs Match AP Lab Criteria from Harry E. Keller, Ph.D. President, Paracomp, Inc., Creator of Smart Science Labs We urge you not to abandon your fundamental lab component requirement for all Biology, Chemistry and Physics courses you authorize to use the AP designation. Science labs provide students with a vital experience not available in the regular classroom: the ability to do real science in a guided environment. This has been the centerpiece of science education for over 100 years and should not be abandoned because of demands from online education providers. When the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL) objected to your guided, hands-on (not virtual) lab component requirement 1, it cited the difficulty of providing AP science courses to all qualified students without online opportunities and noted the high scores achieved on Advanced Placement tests by some online students. NACOL did not suggest just how a real science experience in a guided environment might be achieved without going into a real laboratory under the supervision of a science teacher. According to The National Academies, in their recent report: America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science, Laboratory experiences provide opportunities for students to interact directly with the material world (or with data drawn from the material world), using the tools, data collection techniques, models, and theories of science. 2 This definition does not exclude virtual labs but does exclude simulated experiments. Although we are pleased that you have agreed to consider virtual labs for use in place of a guided, hands-on (not virtual) lab, we urge you to develop specific criteria for determining which virtual labs should be approved. Virtual labs can meet all of your general audit criteria shown below, but simulations do not. Independent of the growth of online education, my colleagues and I created the Smart Science technology in order to provide the authentic science experience of a real science lab in a guided environment, and this technology meets all of these criteria, as indicated below. 1. Understanding the Complexity and Ambiguity of Empirical Work Smart Science virtual labs use real experiments, giving students the opportunity to learn the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Other virtual labs generally use simulations, which by definition replace real science with simplified representations generated by formulas that produce identical results each time they are used. Because Smart Science experiments are real, students collect real data, which are different for each student doing data collection and include systematic and random errors. To meet this criterion, the virtual lab must use real experiments and provide real data collection.

2 2. Developing Scientific Reasoning Guided scientific inquiry, the preferred method for teaching science and scientific reasoning for over 100 years, is built into every Smart Science lab. Students write hypotheses or predictions and pick experiments to run in order to gather the data they require to test their hypotheses or predictions. Students pick experiments from a long list of experimental parameters that identify the experiments, which may include experiments of no use for testing the hypotheses or predictions. Students must collect and analyze data from the experiments and determine when their data are sufficient to defend their findings in a built-in lab report. Whenever possible, students also design and perform experiments outside of the computer and upload images and data into the Smart Science lab for analysis, reporting and documentation. To meet this criterion, guided scientific inquiry, real data collection, lab reports and offline experiments with data and image upload must be built into the virtual lab. 3. Understanding the Nature of Science In a Smart Science lab, when students write hypotheses or predictions, run experiments and collect data, they must take into consideration that they are working with real experiments and that the data they collect will never be perfect or error free. As students collect data, they are required to make judgments about each measurement or classification and identify any systematic and/or random errors. Students must take these errors into consideration when they analyze their data. When students are confident that their data are sufficient to support their conclusions, they must explain in a built-in lab report how their data support their conclusions and identify systematic and random errors. Whenever possible, students also design and perform experiments outside of the computer to expand their understanding of the imperfection of all real experiments. Students must upload images and data from their experiments into the Smart Science lab for analysis, reporting and documentation. To meet this criterion, the virtual lab must use real experiments and provide real data collection and integrated offline experiments with data and image upload. 4. Developing Practical Skills Whenever possible, Smart Science labs contain integrated offline experiments where students design and perform experiments outside of the computer and upload images and data into the Smart Science lab for analysis, reporting and documentation. Smart Science labs also provide interactive exercises for students to develop deep insight into laboratory procedures and practical skills. To meet this criterion, the virtual lab must provide integrated offline experiments with data and image upload along with sufficient exercises concerning laboratory procedures and practical skills.

3 5. Cultivating Interest in Science and Interest in Learning Science Smart Science labs require students to make predictions, to gather data from the real world, and to compare these data with their predictions. Cultivating an interest in science necessarily requires understanding what science is. Then, students must be able to do science, to make predictions, gather data, understand the data fully, and decide if their predictions are correct or must be refined. Ideally, the laboratory experience will generate more questions in the students' minds than it answers. Simulations do not provide the opportunities for students to explore the real world, the one they live in and have a direct stake in. Simulations also do not appear to belong to the real world; they usually look like cartoons. Their precision misleads students into the mistaken idea that experimental data are perfect and are easy to collect and to understand. People have a natural interest in exploration and take a natural joy in discovery. Encouraging these activities cultivates an interest in science and in learning more about it. To meet this criterion, the virtual lab must allow students to do science as scientists do and to understand the usefulness of prediction and experimentation in solving problems. 6. Enhancing a Mastery of Subject Matter By requiring students to take their own data from the real world, Smart Science labs allow students to comprehend the true nature of the phenomena they're investigating. Each lab begins with a short introduction and warm-up exercises designed to elicit common misconceptions of the subject matter. Then, students make predictions of the outcome of experiments. When taking data, students will be comparing real world values with their internal model. By encouraging students to challenge themselves, Smart Science labs improve their mastery of the subject matter. In addition, each Smart Science lab contains supporting material, including scientist biographies, word definitions, science commentary and experiment descriptions, to facilitate mastery of the subject matter. At the end of each lab students use their experimental work to answer questions and solve problems, reinforcing their understanding of the subject matter. To meet this criterion, the virtual lab must provide insights into the real world behavior of the subject matter and provide adequate supporting material to allow complete understanding of all of the issues surrounding the subject matter. 7. Developing Teamwork Abilities Smart Science labs support collaboration and teamwork. Students may collectively analyze the experimental data from their entire group. After students complete a lab, they're encouraged to present their findings in a class forum where students collaborate to identify the principles of science involved. With student-written hypotheses, Smart Science labs provide the means for students to discuss these among themselves to arrive at consensus predictions. Then, they can share their ideas regarding which experiments are most likely to provide insight into the validity of the

4 predictions. Because Smart Science labs incorporate integrated offline experiments where students design and perform experiments outside of the computer, they can share their offline experiment designs and exchange ideas on how best to acquire materials and assemble them as well as the optimal protocols and procedures for extracting useful data from the real world. To meet this criterion, the virtual lab must provide ample opportunities for students to work together in design, data gathering, and problem solving activities. In conclusion, we recommend the following. Retain current criteria augmented by the definition from The National Academies. Based on the above, we strongly encourage you to maintain your criteria as they are and to add a clarifying statement similar to that from the National Academies ( data drawn from the material world ), which will eliminate simulated experiments as the basis for AP science laboratory experience. Require that students collect their own data, which must originate in the material world. Relax your definition of hands-on ( students directly observe and manipulate physical objects, materials, organisms, or phenomena ) slightly by removing the word directly and adding the requirement that students collect their own data. Also, change the phrase describing labs from guided, hands-on (not virtual) to guided, hands-on (not simulated), thus allowing virtual labs while rejecting simulated labs. Require that some reasonable fraction of labs be offline, simple experiments, e.g., at-home labs. Online experiments that use data that students generate themselves from the material world, albeit virtually, supplemented by selected offline experiments in which students directly observe and manipulate physical objects, materials, organisms, or phenomena should provide an optimal learning environment for science that will, in many instances, exceed in quality that provided in traditional science labs. Require that oversight mechanisms be in place for both online and offline labs. Some oversight mechanism should be provided to ensure that students are doing the offline activities. We recommend uploading pictures of the offline experiments. The software used to deliver the virtual experiments should guarantee actual running of experiments and collection of data. We recommend that all student data collection be performed interactively, stored on a remote server, and made available to instructors.

5 1 See to read the NACOL letter. 2 See for information on obtaining this report.

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