Getting mentally prepared for a great experiment can be a touch and go affair for students. You have the hypothesis ready and the models in place, but, what can be done to really help a student get ready? It is essentially this that is the driver behind the Copex project, which aims to provide tools for students to think more analytically outside the laboratory before actually conducting an experiment within.
Giving students the skills to prepare for better experiments
According to Cedric d’Ham, of University Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, there is little literature available that focuses on how a student can benefit from planning before an experiment in chemistry, physics, biology or other fields the earth sciences. Using that premise, the Copex project team had to start from scratch. What would help a student really prepare for an experiment in the lab, especially if they were distance learners without access to a real lab environment all the time? The thing the team were very aware of from the outset is that students can set out and undertake a procedure but not really understand the sense behind it.
To address this concern, the team started by considering ‘scaffolding’ to enhance the learning experience. This term scaffolding, often used in a field of education technology research, is a way to describe how a student is given ‘raw materials’ which they, as architects of a learning experience, enrich through their own data. They are literally propped up whilst they find a means to support their own learning processes. In the case of Copex, the scaffolding is a little like a prompt to create a recipe, enabling a student to check what outcomes might occur before committing themselves to a procedure in the lab.
‘We wanted the students to acquire the analytical skills needed to link the theoretical world with the world of actual objects and events’, Cedric d’Ham explains. ‘We had to start by defining an experimental process. Let’s say distance learners gather together in a physical space at some point during their studies. Using our scaffolding, they have had time to consider the various ingredients needed to pull-together a successful experiment.
People studying through distance education need something that can replace the laboratory environment, so that rather than just focusing on the theory, they are able to conceptualise the ideas through analysis and prediction using the models that we are developing. Students are controlling the simulation through a real experimental procedure. They have to take account of the real problems that may arise during a laboratory experiment. So they have to ensure that the equipment they will use, for example, is well considered and that everything fits together. They have considered the methodological skills needed and if necessary have linked these to smaller problems that you might encounter in the lab, but which you cannot come across in a classical simulation. We have developed a form of inquiry learning which fits a need for distance learners.’
Collaborating with Kaleidoscope partners in other countries
From the start, the team in France consulted colleagues in the Netherlands, also members of the Kaleidoscope European research team known as Collaborative Inquiry and Experiential Learning (CIEL). ‘Our Dutch partners appreciated how new this is,’ Cedric adds, ‘and we are working with them to insert a new module which will help us build something for the future. We hope we can find the funding for this to continue into the future.
We have also started a jointly supervised PhD with our Dutch colleagues, examining the importance of measuring when designing a protocol in physics. This is being led by Muriel Ney and Nicolas Balacheff, who work with Wouter van Joolingen and Ton de Jong at the University of Twente.
Presently we are testing the first version of Copex with students at Grenoble University, in a kind of large chemistry experiment.'
Why is this work so important?
‘It challenges students who might not have direct lab resources immediately at hand. It creates deeper thinking – planning, preparation is less haphazard. The result is that students can become better scientists. Working with students, for example in Grenoble and Lyon, we can see the real advantages that this type of inquiry learning can bring to the sciences. We hope that our efforts can continue to be funded, to enable us to collaborate more with colleagues in other research labs across Europe. It will enable us to build upon the foundations that our work has laid.’