17 Jan 2012

£1million grant from Wolfson Foundation to transform teaching of practical science

The OpenScience Lab will improve access to practical science

The OpenScience Lab will improve access to practical science

Practical science is undergoing rapid changes, with technology making it possible to conduct some experiments and access data and facilities remotely – professional scientists can now work together across the globe. Until now, the new techniques of online working, and the new skills required, have not been well reflected in the teaching of practical science. A new initiative from The Open University, a world leader in online science education, is set to remedy this. A £1 million grant from The Wolfson Foundation is helping to establish The Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory, a global centre at the cutting edge of practical science teaching – operated entirely online.

The Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory is focused on being a resource for undergraduates and will help to satisfy the demand for experienced graduates in this field. Professor Stephen Swithenby, Science Director of eSTEeM, the OU Centre which is leading the project says, “Science graduates are desperately needed in every country but a lack of lab facilities and the resource to expand them makes it difficult to address this. Practical science has been an under-developed area of online education – it is cost-effective, and is a bold way of making the world of science accessible to many more people, particularly those in the least developed countries.”

Guided by rigorous research, The Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory will be a gateway to a range of scientific experiments and observations, many of which are developed by Open University scientists. Although operated entirely online, users will be able to access data from real physical instruments and equipment, enabling them to carry out authentic and rigorous science investigations. Professor Swithenby continues, “The future of science will be crucially dependent on working via a computer screen – the OU has already successfully taken up this challenge in education with the development of facilities like the virtual microscope. Although The OpenScience Laboratory is an online experience, users will be accessing real data and real equipment, a huge advance on oversimplified simulations.”

Operating as a virtual laboratory, The Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory will be designed so that colleagues across the sector and the globe can adopt it for use in their own teaching. It will offer:

•Remote access to laboratories and observatories, involving students operating real physical equipment controlled remotely – this method is already established in astronomy.

•Virtual laboratories and instruments – these will provide interfaces to real data and emulate physical equipment. Interactive screen experiments will include photo-realistic “point-of-view” recordings of physical experiments and replicate the behaviours of real specimens.

•Online field investigations – these may involve electronic access to a conventional field trip, or offer a virtual experience using satellite-borne and remotely operated sensors, where students can investigate specific environments, such as active volcanoes or polar sheets.

•Online collaboration – interfaces to collaborative instrument sharing will create environments for the discussion of design and data analysis.

Paul Ramsbottom, Chief Executive of the Wolfson Foundation, said "This award recognises the importance of providing practical science experience to students on distance learning courses. The Open University is among the international pioneers in this field, and we look forward to the Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory making practical science available to many more students across the globe."
20% of the material will be made freely available under open source software and the initiative will operate internationally, enabling students and teachers from across the globe to share knowledge and discuss experiments. The Wolfson OpenScience Laboratory will also be integrated into Open University science courses.

Notes to Editors
About The Wolfson Foundation
The Wolfson Foundation is a charity that was established in 1955. It aims to support excellence, generally through the funding of capital infrastructure in the fields of science and medicine, health, education and the arts & humanities.
The endowment of the Wolfson Foundation is currently some £725 million, with an annual allocation of approximately £30 million. By 2010 over £600 million had been awarded in grants (in excess of £1 billion in real terms). Over 8,000 projects have been funded.
All grants are awarded following a rigorous review process involving expert reviewers.
As well as backing excellence, grants are often made to act as a catalyst - so that the Foundation's funds can lever additional support.
An important element of the Foundation's strategy is to seek collaboration with other expert bodies. Fruitful partnerships have included leading academic societies (notably the Royal Society and the British Academy), government departments, other grant-making trusts (such as the Wellcome Trust) and charities ranging from Help the Hospices to the Art Fund.

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