(523a) Remote Vs. Hands-on Laboratory Experiences: What Works and What Doesn't | AIChE

(523a) Remote Vs. Hands-on Laboratory Experiences: What Works and What Doesn't


DiBiasio, D. - Presenter, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Henry, J. - Presenter, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
Miletic, M. - Presenter, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Clark, W. M. - Presenter, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Background and Methodology Summary

Our interest is in understanding student learning and the advantages and disadvantages of remotely-operated laboratory experiences compared to hands-on. Ideally, remote experiments can be conducted at any time from any place. They are particularly useful for students at universities where resources are severely limited and there is no access to any significant experimental equipment. Remote experiments are also a way to introduce a lab-like experience in any university where large enrollments prevent practical access to laboratory equipment. In such contexts, knowing how to optimize learning in a remote lab experiment is critical. And, knowing the limitations compared to hands-on is important. The literature in field (not detailed here) indicates mixed results about student learning using remote experiments. And, there are only a few studies of chemical engineering systems.

At WPI distillation is taught in the sophomore year throughout a project-based spiral curriculum. All projects are team-based. We introduce basic concepts early in the sophomore year then revisit distillation throughout the year with successively more complex assignments and projects. This includes at least two lab experiences. The first experiment uses a batch column operated at total reflux to introduce students to multistage distillation including efficiency and energy balances at total reflux. A follow-on course explores pressure swing distillation without a lab component. Near the end of the year, the batch column is used again in a lab project. This project engages students in process dynamics and challenges them to compare analysis using the Rayleigh equation methodology to actual data, for a batch column operated at a constant external reflux ratio.

Because of large enrollments, access to the laboratory is problematic as the experiment takes a few hours to complete. Students have to work in combined teams of 8-10 people (not at all conducive to learning), or run experiments during times when safety and lab monitoring because serious issues. The availability of a very similar remotely operable distillation column at UTC provided the opportunity to study the efficacy of remote labs.

The real incentive for this pilot study was to begin to probe learning differences between identical remote and hands-on experiments. Our goal was to conduct a preliminary, pilot study that would inform a subsequent larger, more rigorous investigation. This spring we recruited 7 volunteer teams from the cohort enrolled in the final sophomore year course to do the remote-only experiment using the UTC column. We also had 7 different teams run the identical experiment locally using the WPI system.

Remote-only and hands-on-only teams conducted identical experiments with identical assignments and project reporting requirements. Evaluation had three components with direct and indirect assessments, giving us some degree of triangulation. Both cohorts completed surveys managed by UIUC. Course instructors compared final reports from remote and hands-on teams. An in-class quiz compared individual learning for students in the remote cohort compared to hands-on cohort in a quantitative manner. Qualitative measures include assessing students' improvement in (a) ? (k) ABET outcomes such as:

(b) ? Design, analysis and interpretation of data

(d) ? Functioning on multidisciplinary teams

(g) ? Effective remote communication

(h) - Have broad education necessary to understand the impact of engineering solutions in a global, economic, and environmental societal context

(k) - Using techniques, skills, and modern engineering tools (such as computers and web interfaces) necessary for engineering practice.

Preliminary Results

As of the writing of this abstract some preliminary results available. We will have a more detailed analysis available for the meeting.


From the instructor's standpoint the logistics associated with running 7 teams in less than two weeks through either the local lab or the remote were roughly identical. The support team at UTC had to be ready to prepare the column for new runs on a daily basis, yet remote teams still had 24/7 access. Likewise, at WPI the support team had to cool down, recharge and restart the column on a daily basis (a 3-4 hour operation) to prepare for the following day's team. At least one hands-on team had to run during a weekend to complete their work.

Student Attitudes

Surveys from both cohorts were distributed to understand student perceptions about their hands-on and local experiences. Reasonable response rates for both the local and remote cohorts were realized. Analysis of the surveys is in progress but preliminary review indicates slightly less satisfaction among the remote cohort. Full results will be available at the conference.

Student Learning

All reports were graded by the WPI instructor using the same rubrics. We evaluated presentation quality, analysis of results, and demonstration of appropriate concepts. Out of a possible 100 points, the average remote cohort score was 79.9 and the average local cohort score was 84.9. In-class quiz (given individually) results showed an average score of 4.6 for the remote students and 4.9 for the local students, out of a possible 8 points. A more detailed content analysis is in progress, but these results show that students who did the hands-on experiment, on the average, performed slightly better than students who did the remote experiment. However, as a class each cohort's performance was acceptable. These results are promising because they indicate that appropriately designed and implemented remote experiences can provide student learning at levels near hands-on experiences.

Currently we are doing a detailed content analysis of the reports and quiz results to determine if there are any significant differences between cohorts regarding specific learning topics. These topics include understanding of dynamic phenomena, application of the Rayleigh equation to lab data, understanding of column energy balances, and level of engagement with differences between theory and reality. That analysis will be available prior to the conference.

In addition to exploring the benefits and constraints of remote lab experiences, we are also interested in understanding how powerful simulations (particularly those with strong visual components) can be used to enhance the laboratory learning experience. We are using Aspen BatchSep simulations of the WPI and UTC columns to determine if the added dimension of realistic simulation helps improve learning and/or satisfaction in either or both cohorts. Preliminary results of this work will also be available for the presentation.


This paper has an Extended Abstract file available; you must purchase the conference proceedings to access it.


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