At La Trobe University, experimental stations equipped with computers, cameras, remote controls and robots are busy at work, transforming the way secondary school students engage with science during COVID-19.
The Freely-Accessible Remote Laboratories, or FARLabs, is a virtual laboratory network that brings state-of-the-art facilities from three Australian universities – La Trobe University, James Cook University and Curtin University – directly to students so that they can undertake physics experiments remotely and collect data in real time.
Established by Dr David Hoxley in 2013 and based at La Trobe, FARLabs has captured the imagination of students from over 300 schools, from metropolitan Melbourne to far-north Queensland, Scotland to Lesotho. The uptake since COVID-19 has been significant. “We are completely booked out,” says Hoxley. “We had our forty-thousandth booking last week.”
The program, one of the first of its kind in the world, has been designed to bridge the gulf between secondary and tertiary science education. Students use a web browser to activate robots that control the laboratory equipment, and the experiment produces data for further analysis. Activities are aligned with the Victorian curriculum for middle school years (7-10), VCE/HSC curriculums and the Australian national science curriculum.
There are no set up requirements or costs involved for schools or students. “We bring the experiments to students – all they need is an internet connection and a standard web browser,” says Hoxley. “Some of our participating schools are in rural Australia, hundreds of kilometres from the nearest university. The uptake of the program by those schools is significant, because they are often resource-poor and have the most to benefit from remote labs.”
Experiments cover everything from collecting data on radioactive samples to monitoring the temperature inside a solar thermal water heater. “Students also have access to climate data from over 700 weather stations throughout Australia and can learn about temperature, humidity and rainfall,” he says. “Or, they can learn how to build 3D images of objects in the same way as a CAT scan does.”
“One experiment features a cyclone testing station from Queensland, complete with a wind tunnel,” Hoxley adds, enthusiastically. “We built 3D models of houses so that students could investigate which house designs might blow away in the wind.”
FARLabs has been designed with teacher feedback, student experience and learning outcomes in mind. “Our primary goal is to improve data literacy,” says Hoxley. “Students get to interact with real data, from a real experiment, in real time, and determine what it all means.”
“FARLabs invites students and teachers to access the world of discovery and share in the pleasure of scientific observation and exploration.”