La Trobe and Far Labs

Far-LabIn 2011 Australia’s Chief Scientist commissioned a report to find out whether there was a problem in science education in Australia. It turns out there was.

The report stated that the number of secondary school students studying science subjects had dropped significantly and that much of the problem stemmed from laboratory experiments, or more accurately, the lack of laboratory experiments in science lessons.

‘The teachers want to teach more labs, they want to have more hands-on experiments and not just read textbooks. But OH&S is a real problem,’ states La Trobe atomic microscopist Dr David Hoxley.

The answer to this problem has been tackled head on by an initiative called FAR Labs, which Dr Hoxley as FAR Labs project leader has been championing around the country.

FAR Labs (Freely Accessible Remote Laboratories) is a virtual laboratory network that brings Australia’s Universities state-of-the-art facilities and world-class research directly into schools.

Involving La Trobe University, James Cook University, Curtin University, Quantum Victoria, the Australian Institute of Physics, and the Victorian eResearch Strategic Initiative, FAR Labs is providing secondary school students with access to experiments that are simply not available in their school labs.

Radioactivity is a great example as Dr Hoxley explains: ‘It’s a core part of the curriculum in year 9 chemistry and year 11 physics but all the schools got rid of their radioactive sources in the 1970s.’

But through Far Labs students can remotely control radioactive experiments housed at La Trobe’s Melbourne Campus and see how radioactivity is much stronger when the source is closest.

‘That’s really important to know, when it comes to radioactivity, distance is the best protection. A lot of students don’t get that until they do it for themselves.’

While students participating in the FAR Labs program may really enjoy carrying out remote experiments, what they might not know is how prevalent the practice is in the professional scientific community.

Dr Hoxley explains using the example of one of Australia’s most expensive pieces of scientific machinery, the synchrotron.

‘Usually there are teams of three of four different scientists from different universities. And if you think how much it would cost to fly all those people to the synchrotron, it’s much cost effective to do it remotely.’

Dr Hoxley further explains that carrying out remote experiments has become a standard for many scientists.

‘We’re in the habit of doing experiments remotely, not just the synchrotron but with our own machines as well.

‘I’ll routinely start a scan on a Friday night and set it to do repeated scans over the weekend when there are no vibrations, no electrical disturbances.

‘In the bad old days I’d be there sleeping in my office but I don’t have to do that anymore. I can have a remote desktop running at home and every so often have a look to make sure it’s still doing what it should be.’

Dr Hoxley believes that this kind of remote learning can be even more effective if it is openly embraced.

‘This kind of remote operation is less common in teaching because they’ve seemed to avoid the video aspect because they think that video won’t be as immersive but what we’ve found is that it is very immersive,’ says Dr Hoxley.

Dr Hoxley holds hopes that Far Labs might soon expand overseas.

‘We’ve had a lot of hits from the US and increasing numbers of hits from China and Southeast Asia.’