Articulate Virtual Laboratories for Science and Engineering Education

Sponsor: Applications of Advanced Technology Program, National Science Foundation
Principal Investigator: Kenneth D. Forbus

Project Summary: The goal of this project is to develop articulate virtual laboratories (AVLs) that teach science and engineering principles by providing scaffolding and coaching students in conceptual design tasks. The educational conjecture we are testing is that articulate virtual laboratories will enable students to (a) learn fundamental principles radically better than they would otherwise and (b) succeed at design tasks that they would otherwise be unable to perform. To test these conjectures, our prototype laboratories will be used by engineering undergraduates from Northwestern University and Oxford University as part of their course work, and by high school students from Evanston Township High School.

We believe that articulate virtual laboratories could dramatically improve engineering and science education. Design experience is essential to engineering education, and provides a powerful motivating context for learning fundamental physical principles: One cannot design a jet engine, refrigerator, or power plant without using a broad range of physical principles. Design environments that provide scaffolding for students, allowing them to focus on fundamentals, could prove invaluable for instruction in basic science as well as engineering, and could better motivate interest in science learning. Design experiences are difficult to provide in typical classroom settings, because many interesting physical artifacts (such as power plants, jet engines, and refrigerators) are expensive or dangerous to build and experiment with. Articulate virtual laboratories will address these problems by enabling students to design, analyze, and test artifacts in a simulated environment, cheaply and safely. They will provide coaching for students, in order to help them understand fundamental principles, to help them practice the skills needed to model, analyze, and design physical systems, and to provide the kind of supervision that a good laboratory assistant provides by way of minimizing unenlightening aspects of student explorations.

Creating articulate virtual laboratories requires synthesizing advances involving several AI technologies.

We are developing two prototype articulate virtual laboratories, in collaboration with engineering faculty at Northwestern University and at Oxford University who are willing to use them with their students. The first concerns thermodynamic cycles, an idealization used in the conceptual design of power plants, propulsion systems, refrigeration systems, and heat pumps. Mastering the design and analysis of thermodynamic cycles requires a deep understanding of a substantial body of thermodynamics. The second concerns feedback controllers. The concepts of feedback and control theory permeate modern science and engineering. While mathematical analyses are required to design optimal controllers, we believe that many of the important concepts of feedback could be grasped by high school students, given appropriate scaffolding.

See information on:
CyclePad: An Articulate Virtual Laboratory for engineering thermodynamics
CyclePad in use at the US Naval Academy

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