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iLabs Network Gives ETHS Physics Students Ability To Do Advanced Research Remotely

August 27, 2008
By Kara Rogers

Evanston Township High School (ETHS) physics students now have an opportunity to conduct experiments at top-level universities around the world. All they need is a computer and access to the Internet.

ETHS's involvement in the online project connecting young students and scientists around the world, dubbed the iLabs Network, sprung from the relationship between Northwestern's Office of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education Partnerships (OSEP) and ETHS physics teacher Mark Vondracek.

"I've been working with Mark for a number of years," said Kemi Jona, director of OSEP, principal investigator of Northwestern's iLabs Network and research associate professor in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP). "In addition to being an incredible teacher, he is deeply passionate about improving science education, which makes him a great partner to work with," Jona added.

Vondracek, who was a finalist for Illinois Teacher of the Year in 2005, is a former particle physicist and teaches online courses for Northwestern's Center for Talent Development. From his perspective, remote labs are a welcome addition for students working from their homes and for schools that don't have equipment for labs.

"For my classes at ETHS, I am looking forward to having an expanding list of options for experiments," Vondracek said. "There are a number of 'classic' experiments I do not have the resources to carry out, and some of these experiments may very well develop into an iLab at some university."

Thanks to a $1 million, two-year grant iLabs received from the National Science Foundation this past spring, the network has been growing constantly and attracting the participation of an increasing number of universities. "As more universities will be asked to join, high school teachers and students may in fact help design and host experiments," Vondracek said. "I have hopes of getting my own students thinking about experiments that would be appropriate and useful for an iLab and then having them assemble it and learn how to get the electronics, interfaces, and software up and running as we host a lab."

While Vondracek's vision sounds ambitious, a big part of iLabs is teaching students about using technology on an international scale. "The whole idea of iLabs is you only need a web browser," said Dean Grosshandler, SESP research assistant professor and associate director of OSEP. As senior investigator of Northwestern's iLabs, Grosshandler is charged with making sure the University's lab projects are effective in the ETHS classroom. He also has been seeking out other partners who want to take advantage of the technology, including middle schools in Evanston and schools in Chicago.

Through iLabs, ETHS students can access a nuclear reactor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as electronic circuits and pendulum experiments at other participating universities. "Students have the chance to work with mass spectrometers, neutron beam diffraction labs, and other resources that can really get students excited about science learning," Jona said.

This summer, Vondracek asked 10 of his students to try out a radioactivity iLab hosted by the University of Queensland in Australia. "I asked them via email if they could try the experiment to test the technology, as well as the instructions we developed, and then check the quality of the data," he explained. "It is completely done over the Internet as a mini pilot test of the existing experiment."

Programs like iLabs are fundamental to helping students learn how to make use of technology that connects them to people and resources around the world. "Working together using technology is a very nice way to model for students what they need to be able to do in this day and age," Vondracek said. "It is a new set of skills employers will be looking for as more and more companies and industries have national and international components."

(Kara Rogers is a freelance writer based in Chicago)