FARLabs: Switching STEM students from spectators to controllers

FARLabs: Switching STEM students from spectators to controllers
April 24, 2017 Karen Mecoles
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Why increasing data literacy is imperative for Australia’s future

“Increasing data literacy is imperative for Australia’s future” according to Dr David Hoxley, Director at FARLabs. “Our country’s future decision makers must be capable of clearly understanding complex abstract science concepts and the impacts of their associated social and environmental contexts.”

FARLabs – Freely-Accessible Remote Laboratories  is an acknowledged leader promoting global innovation and sustainability in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education.

Can nuclear power fix global warming? What are the consequences from releasing radiation into the environment? How can we heat water without burning coal to provide electricity? What are the best mechanical properties for building materials used in cyclone-prone areas? FARLabs was specifically developed to address these kinds of complex challenges.

Connecting Australian classrooms with cutting edge research infrastructure

FarLabsUsersStudents and teachers can see and control state-of-the-art equipment at La Trobe in Victoria, James Cook in Queensland and Curtin University in Western Australia, as well as run experiments at Australia’s peak science facility, the $200 million Australian Synchrotron .

Underpinned by the NeCTAR research cloud, FARLabs was a ground-breaking high priority initiative of La Trobe University and its partners under AMSPP – the Australian Government Mathematics and Science Partnerships Program.

FARLabs comprises state-of-the art equipment, a website portal, and supporting teaching materials. Students can observe the experiments in via a high speed video link, and, more importantly, can make real-time control adjustments to simulate different impact factors.

“Observation and real-time control of laboratory equipment is fundamental to engaging students with the secondary science curriculum”, according to a report commissioned by the Chief Scientist in 2012. The report also identified a pressing need to increase STEM engagement in Australian schools to avoid potential future skills shortages.

Leveraging multiple technologies

FARLabs leverages the NeCTAR research cloud to deliver a solution comprising an array of NeCTAR virtual machines, coupled with 30+ experimental enclosures sited at La Trobe University.

“Following a detailed investigation, the NeCTAR cloud emerged as the only viable technical solution.”

“Following a detailed investigation, the NeCTAR cloud emerged as the only viable technical solution. It easily addressed our four fundamental non-negotiable requirements of scalability, redundancy, speed and reliability. NeCTAR was an extremely cost-effective solution when compared with the cost of constructing and maintaining physics infrastructure across Australian schools.” As a bonus, FARLabs is regarded as extremely reliable and trustworthy as it leverages the high-speed AARNet network between participant universities.

Leveraging the NeCTAR research cloud and operating a virtual environment also facilitates increased access– an important factor for schools in areas with limited access or inherent disadvantages such as remote location, socioeconomic issues or educational resourcing.

“FARLabs uses NeCTAR’s proven, stable, robust and open technologies that consume minimal financial, technological and personnel resources. We have proven that the remote-access laboratory experience can be a powerful, popular, and economical way to increase engagement in and appreciation of STEM in Australia.”

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Increasing engagement for Australian STEM students

Recognised as a globally innovative winner of the prestigious international S-Lab ‘Virtual Laboratory: Learning’ award for teaching excellence, run through the UK Institute of Science and Technology in 2013, FARLabs is addressing the challenge of increasing school engagement through its participation in the Remstep program to deliver a new way of teaching science. This information now forms part of the State and Federal Government teaching repositories for pre-service teachers.

The demonstrable impact from this use of the NeCTAR research cloud is reflected in FARLabs’ impressive outreach metrics – active working relationships with 300+ registered schools and 700+ registered science teachers across Australia, many in remote areas, 19 000 sessions hosted since the start of the project, and 160,000+ page hits in 2016 alone.

Moving forward, FARLabs will continue to use the NeCTAR research cloud with plans currently underway to increase school and teacher outreach as well as extend its experimental capacity. “Thanks to the NeCTAR research cloud, we can easily provide additional capacity when needed by simply utilising additional virtual machines”.

“The partnership between NeCTAR and FARLabs has dramatically increased engagement for Australian STEM students. This ultimately results in increased data literacy and more informed decision-making – areas that are imperative for Australia’s future.”

For further information on FARLabs visit http://www.farlabs.edu.au

Story by Loretta Davis