Cyberlab: An Ally for Teaching Scientific Collaboration

Often when a scientist, engineer, or medical practitioner makes a discovery, develops a new procedure, or invents a new device he or she writes a paper explaining what he or she has done. This paper is usually published in a scientific journal or, increasingly today, over the Internet. One reason for publishing these discoveries or new procedures is to give peers the opportunity to see if the discovery or procedure is reproducible. If an experiment, discovery, or new procedure is reproducible then it is considered valid.

As a middle school science teacher my challenge was to try to develop in my students an understanding of this important process. I also wanted them to know that, thanks to the telecommunication and transportation revolutions, scientists from many different countries and cultures work together on a variety of projects collaboratively. The successful scientific collaborations require tolerance of others and the ability to interact in diverse settings. This was also a concept that I wanted my students to understand and to appreciate.

Blessed with a science classroom with both a lab for conducting experiments, and enough Internet connected computers for every two students, I was able to develop a series of Web based activities that teach the importance of scientific reproducibility, peer review and the acceptance of different opinions.

Cyberlab, a Web site that I have developed and maintain, is designed to introduce students to the science protocol of peer review and research reproducibility. The Cyberlab site contains a narrative project assignment. Each project begins with a problem-solving scenario, followed by a detailed list of requirements for carrying out the project and making a final report. There are links to needed real data, as well as links to supplementary study material. The Web site includes search engines to facilitate more in-depth investigations.

Cyberlab Narratives are Multicultural

Children today live in an era of increasing racial and ethnic diversity. In a 1998 Children Now poll, over three fourths of children reported having a best friend of a different race. While diversity is easily seen in many children’s lives, the question is: should they not also see it portrayed when it comes to scientific collaboration? Young people get clear messages about racial, ethnic, and class divisions and their own identity through the characters they see on television and other media. The Internet is a visual medium that goes beyond television in that it is interactive. The use of the Cyberlab web page can raise the awareness of students to the diversity, gender integration, and multicultural nature of scientific collaboration.

Project assignments range widely: there was one to verify the reproducibility of a middle school student’s procedure for making a "plastic" like substance from milk; another to analyze a genetic karyotype to diagnosis Down’s syndrome; and a third to investigate data concerning the discovery of a new element by British high school students. When a project is completed my students use Email to distribute their results to other participating classes in my school.

Setting Up A Cyberlab Type Web Page

It is very easy to develop and publish a web page similar to Cyberlab without the need to learn complicated computer programming code. The software that permits you to create web pages is generically known as “Web page authoring tools.†Three of the best and the easiest to use are Microsoft FrontPage 2000, Dreamweaver, and Netscape Composer. Also many word processors allow you to convert documents that you create into web pages.

After you develop your web page you can publish or upload it to one of the many free Web providers, which is especially helpful given tight school budgets. Many of these web providers offer free web space, Email service, and provide simple online Web page-making tools. Three companies that will publish your Web page for free are Tripod, Homestead, and 20megsFree. Our Cyberlab is hosted on Homestead.com and 20megsfree.com. Also, commercial online services (think America Online, MSN, etc.) make it possible for members to publish Web pages for free as well.

Why Develop A Cyberlab?

The following are some reasons for developing your own web site.

  • You can control the content of the site.
  • Because the site is on the Internet, families are able to work with their children on the activities at home, and by doing so become exposed to the multicultural narratives.
  • The site also can contain a dedicated Email address so students and their teachers from other schools can make comments and suggestions. My class received Email from students, teachers, and interested people from around the world.
  • Other subjects besides science can be covered using the Cyberlab approach.

Mike Calhoun

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