Recognition for innovative education

A futuristic high school science education program pioneered by La Trobe University has just been recognised as one of the most innovative in the world.

Called FARLabs (Freely-Accessible Remote Laboratories) it lets students take control of live experiments in their classrooms from anywhere in the country.

The system won the prestigious international S-Lab 'Virtual Laboratory: Learning' award for teaching excellence run through the UK's Institute of Science and Technology, presented at King's College, London last night.

The FARLabs project was launched by La Trobe University late last year and is already linked to more than 220 schools across Australia, many in remote areas.

It allows secondary school students to access state-of-the-art physics equipment at three Australian universities: La Trobe in Victoria, James Cook in Queensland and Curtin in Western Australia.

It also enables them to run experiments at Australia's peak science facility, the $200 million Australian Synchrotron. All they need is an internet connection and a standard web browser.

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One of 350 science teachers who have signed up to the project, Carol Burgess from Kennedy Baptist College in Murdoch, Western Australia, said 'Seeing a real experiment that the students can interact with is brilliant.'

Program leader of FARLabs, La Trobe's Dr David Hoxley, said 'The system has been designed from day one to be adopted by secondary schools at a massive level. That makes it unique.

'What we have done, in essence, is refurbish every participating school's physics department with a new suite of equipment. To do this physically would have cost millions of dollars. We've done it virtually, and it's an incredibly cost-effective solution.'

Dr Hoxley said students could carry out experiments using radioactive materials, solar energy, weather and optics and analyse data on their own tablets and smartphones.

'So it's all very real for them. That's why students love it,' Dr Hoxley said. 'They control the equipment and get to see it move in response. That's important. At the same time they are doing real science, obtaining live data.'

Congratulating the FARLabs team on their win, Vice-Chancellor Professor John Dewar said the project's success demonstrated La Trobe University's expertise and the passion of staff involved in science, technology, engineering and maths education.

'It also highlights our strong commitment to improving educational opportunities and outcomes in regional, rural and remote Australia,' he said.

FARLabs was government funded under the Australian Maths and Science Partnership Program in response to a report by Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb highlighting the need to better engage high school students in science.

Developed by Dr Hoxley and La Trobe colleagues Dr Brian Abbey and Professor Paul Pigram, it is supported by partner organisations Quantum Victoria, James Cook University and Curtin University.

NB: The S-Lab (Safe, Successful and Sustainable Laboratories) Awards celebrate excellence in laboratory design on a global scale.

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Media Contact: Ernest Raetz, Media and Communications, 041 226 1919