17 Mar 2008

Open University students trial interactive screen experiments

Interactive screen experiments

Interactive screen experiments

An innovative new kind of physics experiment is being introduced for science students on Open University courses this year. Interactive screen experiments (ISEs) use Flash technology to allow students to carry out a real experiment using a standard home computer and web browser.

An ISE consists of many hundreds of photographs of an actual laboratory experiment designed to capture all possible states of the apparatus. “It’s a kind of highly interactive movie where the student can control the development of the plot,” said Dr Paul Hatherly of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Open University. “ISEs are real experiments showing real phenomena. They are not simulations of what someone thinks you should see.”

In a simulated experiment the computer predicts the outcome using a mathematical model and generates the appropriate images. In an ISE there is no model – the student influences the course of an actual experiment.

Dr Hatherly has been developing the ISEs with Dr John Macdonald, of the University of Reading, as part of the piCETL collaboration led by The Open University (OU).

In the first ISE, a home experiment for students on the OU’s recently launched Exploring Science course (S104), students will be able to measure diffraction angles of emission lines from a low-energy light bulb. They can move the equipment on screen, view the diffracted image, align the spectrum with the scale on a protractor and measure the angles.

Dr Macdonald and Dr Hatherly are now working on ISEs in radioactivity and spectroscopy that will be introduced at the OU’s Practising Science (SXR103) residential schools in Edinburgh and Brighton this summer. There are also plans to use ISEs in a new course on experimental design.

While ISEs are well suited to the OU’s distance learning students, Dr Hatherly stressed that they are not intended to replace hands-on experiments but rather to augment them. In a conventional university ISEs can help students practice skills in their own time and learn to use a piece of apparatus before they enter the laboratory. They are also ideal for disabled students who cannot use laboratory equipment. ISEs may have a role in developing countries which lack well-equipped teaching laboratories.

ISEs can also be used with equipment that is too expensive, scarce or dangerous for students to handle themselves. They may also have applications in industrial training such as the operation of a nuclear power station.

“Although the first experiments have been in physics there is no reason why the concept should not be extended to other science disciplines and even to the humanities,” Dr Hatherly concluded.

Editor's notes

1. The Physics Innovations Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (piCETL) is a collaboration between the physics departments of the Open University, the University of Reading and the University of Leicester. It is funded for 5 years from 2005 to 2010 by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

2. The concept of ISEs was originally proposed and demonstrated about 10 years ago by Juergen Kirstein and Volkhard Nordmeier of the Freie Universität in Berlin and implemented in QuickTime VR. This was extended to use the web-deliverable Shockwave medium and applied by Dr Dieter Schumacher of Heinrich-Heine-Universität in Düsseldorf to experiments in medical physics. With the recent increases in desktop computing power and broadband internet it has become practicable for more complex experiments that involve larger databases of photographs and numerical readings. This allows researchers to explore even those experiments that contain some inherent randomness in their behaviour.

Further information

Dr Paul Hatherly, The Open University –, Tel: 01908 654973

Dr John Macdonald, University of Reading -, Tel: 0118 378 8545

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