The value of doing science
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This study examines student perceptions of the value of virtual labs in the high school chemistry classroom. Since the 1990s, there has been a tremendous increase in the use of computer technology, especially Internet-based instruction, in both secondary and post-secondary science classrooms. Scientists and science teachers have always been very insistent of the important role that laboratory activities play in science instruction. With the introduction of virtual technology, there has been controversy among science teachers regarding the pedagogical soundness of virtual labs. Four chemistry labs, one in each of the areas of calorimetry, thermochemistry, solutions and acid-bases, were studied because they represent four major areas in chemistry and there were virtual labs available where a corresponding traditional lab could be performed with practically the same instructions. The order in which virtual labs and traditional labs were experienced by students was alternated to achieve a balanced design. 12 students, six males and six females, were interviewed, before the labs were conducted, to determine their prior experiences with video games and in science classes, especially with laboratory/hands-on experiences in those classes. After performing both versions of the four labs, they were interviewed again to assess their knowledge of each topic, in terms both of calculations and of lab procedures, and to solicit their perceptions of the virtual labs, the traditional labs, and any perceived synergies of the use of both formats. Major findings include that most students: were familiar with virtual technology from playing video games and with using computer equipment in their personal lives and in education; reported that their experiences with science labs were very minimal in elementary school, with some minor improvement in middle school; perceived their science experiences in high school classes to be of much higher quality and much more conducive to learning because of the much larger lab component. While most students perceived the traditional labs to be superior because of the hands-on component, they viewed virtual labs as valuable, especially in circumstances where the traditional lab was not an option. In addition, they saw value in performing both the traditional and virtual versions of the same lab, especially if the virtual lab was performed first in order to fine tune their skills before tackling the potentially more dangerous, costly and time consuming traditional lab. INDEX WORDS: VIRTUAL LAB, HIGH SCHOOL SCIENCE, SIMULATION, VIDEO GAMES, CHEMISTRY, SYNERGY.