January 18, 2016
The fundamentals of online learning are “read, write, respond.” But for many students, especially in STEM programs, that's no longer enough: They want hands-on learning through interactive experiences that teach them the skills required in their field.
At SNHU, course designers are incorporating a variety of interactive media, software and practical tools — from the simple to the sophisticated — into online courses. And the palette of tools is growing rapidly. Science students now get a complete lab-in-a-box mailed to them at home so they can perform real experiments. Nursing students use video game-like software to evaluate virtual patients. Even business students run competing companies in a multiplayer game.
A key aspect of science is experimentation, so chemistry sets, robots and other interactive tools are essential in STEM classes, says Angela Foss, associate dean of STEM programs.
As she talks, Foss makes a small robot travel in circles on a tabletop by typing commands into her laptop. The Finch robot, shaped like a manta ray on wheels, costs less than $100 and has sensors for light, temperature and obstacles, a penholder for writing, an accelerometer and buzzer, a tail it can stand on and a glowing nose that changes colors. Students taking robotics (IT 209) learn how to control the robot by writing code in SNAP and Java, but the robot also supports more than a dozen programming languages and invites students to keep experimenting. Foss elaborates:
“Students purchase this like they would purchase a textbook and get it in the mail. They can go beyond what is taught in the course, if they want – and it’s theirs to keep.” – Angela Foss
Students studying chemistry, physics, biology and geology get lab-in-a-box kits mailed to their homes. The kits are customized to SNHU’s curriculum, and course design experts try to keep the cost under $100, so they’re affordable.
Instructor Fred Bernardin piloted the chemistry lab last spring, first practicing all the experiments himself and taking pictures of important steps to post in Blackboard. For cost and safety reasons, he decided to eliminate an experiment that involved an open flame, but all the chemicals in the kit are safe.
“You’d really have to work hard to get any explosions.” – Fred Bernardin
Students test and compare the acidity of ketchup and salsa, use a homemade calorimeter to test the heat capacity of different metals, and make the volume of gasses expand and shrink.
Environmental science student Scott Malusi, of Shepherd, Michigan, is already an environmental technician with an associate degree in chemistry from a community college. He was impressed with the chemistry kit, which contains a lot of the same equipment he uses at work. Real experiments give students invaluable experience – even when they don’t go as planned, says Malusi, who is now taking the biology class and lab.
Recently Malusi was supposed to compare the rate of yeast growth on five different sweeteners by trapping and measuring the gas given off, but two of his yeast colonies grew so fast they overflowed their test tubes – and the gas escaped.
“With a lot of labs, they don’t always go exactly as it’s written out. That’s part of what teaches you critical thinking – you have to figure out what went wrong.” – Scott Malusi
When students have problems with a lab, Bernardin says he supplies them with sample data so they still have something to analyze and can complete the module.
“We recognize that not everything’s going to go perfectly for you. The important thing is to get the connections and the understanding,” says Bernardin, who is helping develop the physics lab-in-a-box, which debuted this fall.
Another exciting new hands-on learning tool enables network security students in IT 320 to run real processes on a virtual computer network, custom-designed by an SNHU expert and hosted by a software company. Students learn how to configure and optimize the virtual network, run diagnostic tests, build a firewall, detect intrusions, ensure the security of wireless connections and more.
When a good STEM tool doesn’t exist, subject matter experts often design one. For a class in building mobile apps, an expert created an empty template: Its base code acts like a building foundation, with the design of the building left up to each student. Experts also design “case studies” on the fly. For example, in a class on building web services, experts built a sample database and other simulated web services that the students’ web services could interact with.
IT, data analytics and math students also use virtual desktops that provide programming or computational software. That saves students a bundle of money because they don’t have to buy multiple, expensive applications. It also saves tech support from having to troubleshoot software installation for thousands of students using a wide range of computers.
“Students get a consistent experience and faculty can easily support what they’re doing.” – Angela Foss
Based on the results so far and the feedback from students and instructors alike, it’s unanimous: hands-on learning tools are the key to teaching the skills students need to succeed in the workplace.
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