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Doing science over the Internet

Albert Balbon gestures during a demonstration about the Remote Web-Based Science Lab at a North Island College workshop.  - Photo by Lindsay Chung
Albert Balbon gestures during a demonstration about the Remote Web-Based Science Lab at a North Island College workshop.
— image credit: Photo by Lindsay Chung

Can students participate in scientific experiments even if they aren’t in the room?

Using the Internet and a Remote Web-Based Science Lab (RWSL), they can, North Island College (NIC) distributed learning supervisor Albert Balbon demonstrated recently when NIC hosted the two-day North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) RWSL Workshop in Courtenay.

Scientists and post-secondary curriculum designers from all over North America gathered at NIC’s Comox Valley campus to explore the use of the Internet to deliver university-level science courses.

As architects of the technology supporting the RWSL project, having spent the past three years designing and building the prototypes, NIC’s own Ron Evans and Balbon were front and centre at the conference, demonstrating the technology — including the purpose-built robotic arm — used to conduct laboratory experiments remotely.

The RWSL project was awarded a $750,000 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges to further develop and replicate delivery of science education remotely, according to a news release from NIC.

Working as part of a consortium with BCcampus, the Colorado Community College System and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, NIC’s RWSL initiative was selected from a field of more than 600 pre-proposals and 50 finalists, it stated.

Partially funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, recognition in this form is high praise for Evans and Balbon, noted the release.

NIC has been provided a grant and both are now working with their North American partners to make online science education a reality.

“The initial idea was to take science labs to students in remote locations,” explained Evans, an NIC science instructor formerly located in Bella Coola. “However, when we began building the technology, we soon realized that science education could be delivered in a way never before imagined — remotely through the Internet — providing the flexibility necessary for those with families or other commitments and students with disabilities to complete a science degree.”

“With the interest shown by our North American partners and the funding we recently received, we are now starting to envision a RSWL network, where a student from Colorado or Montana may access their lectures from their local community college but conduct their laboratories online using the equipment at North Island College,” added Balbon, NIC’s supervisor of distributed learning.

Balbon has been at NIC for 26 years, working with distance and distributed learning, and during the demonstrations, he pointed out the college has been a leader in remote technology for many years.

NIC was one of the first colleges in Canada to set up video technology, according to Balbon.

“Over the years, with video conferencing, we’ve had a lot of experience with remote technology,” he said. “We’ve been doing that for almost 20 years now.”

NIC was also setting up the first Local Area Networks in colleges, noted Balbon.

Balbon told the crowd he has been working with Evans for at least 25 years, and they have had many different ideas, such as a telescope students could control from their computers.

“When the Internet came along, we thought of a telescope students could control,” said Balbon. “Students from around the world could take an astronomy course and control a robot telescope from their PC.”

Balbon sees a lot of possibilities for remote labs to give students more opportunities to learn without needing to be at one specific site.

RWSL allows laboratory-based exercises from any lab science discipline — such as biology — to be delivered entirely over the Internet to student lab groups who will perform these actual lab exercises in real time by controlling the lab equipment remotely.

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