WPI Launches Connected Laboratory Project, Innovative National Teaching Model

Donors have established an endowed fund to help sustain WPI's Global Perspective Program by addressing two urgent needs: supporting participation for highly-qualified students who otherwise could not afford an off-campus project experience, and increasing program capacity to accommodate student demand.

The Connected Laboratory Project is an exciting new initiative that aims to enhance teaching and learning techniques in the laboratory and give first year students a jump-start on the project work for which WPI is known. Made possible by a three-year $271,440 grant, the Connected Laboratory Project will produce a library of digital resources that students can use to learn and review laboratory techniques and concepts as they require them. The grant is also being used to outfit the lab with real-time data sharing technology that will help connect the students to one another and to the instructor, allowing for real-time feedback on their experiments. The grant was received from the Davis Educational Foundation, established by Stanton and Elisabeth Davis after Mr. Davis’s retirement as chairman of Shaw’s Supermarkets Inc.’

"We are deeply grateful to the Davis Foundation for this generous grant and for its longstanding commitment to improving undergraduate education," says Provost John Orr. "With their support and vision, WPI will continue to pioneer innovative teaching and learning techniques that challenge students to become active and collaborative participants in their own education. We expect the Connected Laboratory Project to establish a new national model for laboratory teaching."

The Connected Lab has three main components: real-time display of student lab results during class; remote access to all student data for analysis after the lab; and an online library of multimedia content demonstrating lab procedures that students can view at their convenience to help prepare for class or to use as a resource in the lab. Students in undergraduate biology lab sections began using the technology in January.

During a lab session, students use hand-held remote devices, called clickers, to enter their data as their experiments progress. All data is immediately displayed, by lab group, on a projection screen for the whole class to see. "The students like to see how they are doing compared to other groups, and it helps me to be more effective teaching the lab," says Michael Buckholt, principal investigator of the Connected Lab program and instructor in the Department of Biology and Biotechnology. "When the lab is in progress, I can’t be looking over every student’s shoulder, all the time. But with this system, I can quickly see which groups are on track. If any groups are getting into trouble, I can go right away to the group that needs intervention and help them through it. When we catch mistakes early, it makes the rest of the lab more meaningful."

The Connected Lab project is also designed to minimize time taken up with discussions of routine set-up and experimental procedures, thereby giving the students more time to focus on the science. To that end, starting in fall 2008, several groups of WPI students who were working on their required Interactive Qualifying Project began producing video clips and multimedia content pieces explaining the 'pre-lab' information. "It’s all been working very well," says Kate Beverage, manager of WPI’s Technology for Teaching and Learning Support Services, the group coordinating the technical elements of the initiative. "The students who produced the video content were extremely motivated, and approached it as a true research project. They’ve tried different production methods—some with music, some without, some using humor, some more serious—and they will gather data about what works best for the students using the material."

Once a Connected Lab session is completed, students can log on to the WPI network to access their own data, and the data obtained by other groups in their class. With more data to analyze, students have the opportunity to make more thoughtful interpretations and conclusions about the lab results.  The access to other groups’ data also helps students who, for a variety of reasons, may not get enough experimental data on their own to complete the lab. 'If students do something wrong during their experiments, then they may not get any useful data,' said Jill Rulfs, associate professor and associate head of the Biology and Biotechnology Department. "We want them to learn from those mistakes, of course, but we also want them to have access to data so they can do the analysis, the statistical procedures, the interpretation, and hypothesizing, which are important parts of what we’re trying to teach."

Clickers as classroom tools have been proliferating at schools and universities in the United States for several years. Typically, they are used to take attendance or to permit students to respond to multiple-choice questions posed for discussion during lectures or when taking tests. The Connected Lab initiative, however, significantly expands the use of clicker technology so to assess its impact, WPI has partnered with the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts to conduct a detailed evaluation and report on the results of the initiative.

"What’s really wonderful about this project is that we were brought in during the development phase, to build an evaluation component into this from the start," says Paula Quinn, research manager at the UMass Donahue Institute. "Last year, we collected data from a comparison group-students in similar lab sections at WPI not using the new technology. This year, we’ll be collecting data from the students using the system, and we’ll see if there are any differences. We’ll focus on student engagement in the lab, student independence, and student efficiency, and see what impact the technology may have."

This year, the biology lab sections are using the Connected Lab and the Department of Physics will develop its plan for using the model.  Next year, the physics labs will implement the program and the Donahue Institute will complete its evaluation. If the initiative demonstrably improves student learning and performance, WPI plans to extend its use and potentially build a technology platform that could be leveraged at other universities.

In the fall of 2008, to prepare for the January launch in the biology labs, WPI piloted the real-time data display and collection elements of the system in one biology lab section, and the results were encouraging. "Based on the pilot program, we saw students were enthusiastic about using the system and were much more engaged in the lab," Rulfs says. "This is a research program, and we’ll have to wait and see what the results are in a year, but so far we are optimistic that using these technologies in this new way will have a positive impact."

Located in Falmouth, Maine, the Davis educational Foundation has supported a wide range of programs that enhance undergraduate programs in New England colleges and universities. The Davis Foundation has provided funding for many WPI programs that improve the first year: Peer Learning Assistants which support project work in biology and mathematics; the Insight program for first year academic advising; and the Project-based Learning Community which gives first year students the opportunity to work on team projects that connect mathematics and physics with the humanities.

August 15, 2008

Contact: Judith Jaeger, Director of Advancement Publications, +1-508-831-5962, jjaeger@wpi.edu