Research Matters - to the Science Teacher
No. 8903 April 1,
Computer-Based Technology in college Science Laboratory
by William H. Leonard, Professor of Science Education
and Professor of Biology, Clemson University, Clemson, SC
The microcomputer introduces several applications of
computer-based technology to laboratory instruction in college
science courses. Almost as soon as the microcomputer was used for
science instruction, faculty, especially those in the physical
sciences, began the development of computer-based applications.
Furthermore, there are some interesting reports in the literature
that describe the use of this technology and/or report the effects of
computer-based instruction on student learning. This article reviews
the recent literature on the use of microcomputer applications in
college science laboratory courses with a focus on student
Currently there are two major uses of computer-based technology in
college laboratory courses: (1) direct instruction of laboratory
concepts by simulation using traditional computer-assisted
instruction (CAI) or by a more advanced version of CAI using an
interactive videodisc system (IVI) and (2) using the microcomputer
for data analysis and or input of data with laboratory
instrumentation interfaced to the microcomputer. The following
discussion is divided into these two areas.
There are numerous studies using (CAI) in college science
instruction, but only a few reports of use in conjunction with
laboratory instruction specifically. In one study, students in an
introductory chemistry laboratory course who used computer simulated
experiments for four different laboratory investigations (kinetics,
absorbance, spectroscopy, emission spectroscopy, and equilibrium) did
as well or significantly better than students performing the
traditional laboratory investigation on the same topic. The CAI group
also spent significantly less time learning the material (Calvin
& Lasgowski, 1978). Curtis (1986) used a software system designed
to teach students how to fit simple response functions to
experimental data. Using modern data analysis techniques was found to
help students with low and low-average mathematical skills more than
it helped students with high skills. Miller (1986) found no
differences in achievement or attitudes due to student use of CAI
materials in a community college biology laboratory course.
Microcomputers interfaced laser videodisc players provide a
combination of the advantages of the microcomputer and traditional
television or videodisc images. The result of interfacing these two
technologies permits a high level of interactivity between the
computer and student, and high resolution, life-like video images of
natural phenomena (Leonard, 1987a). In comparison of interactive
videodisc versus the traditional laboratory to teach physical
principles of standing waves and strings, no difference was found on
pretest/posttest gains between the two groups of students, but that
students in the two groups used different strategies to separate and
control for variables based on the physical nature of the
instructional materials available (Stevens, 1985). Waugh (1987)
randomly assigned two groups of chemistry students studying
equilibrium to either a traditional laboratory activity or simulation
with an interactive videodisc system. The latter group scored
significantly better on both laboratory quizzes and on their
laboratory reports. Similarly, a large group of non-major biology
students were assigned to either traditional laboratory exercises or
stimulations on an interactive videodisc system to learn about
cellular respiration and about biogeography. Results showed no
statistically significant differences between the groups on
laboratory quizzes, laboratory reports, or laboratory final exam.
Opinion data on questionnaire indicated that students felt the
videodisc instruction gave them more experimental and procedural
options and more efficient use of instructional time than did
conventual laboratory instruction. Students indicated interactive
videodisc was equivalent for general interest, understanding of basic
principles, help on examinations, and attitudes toward science. The
conclusion was that interactive videodisc can, in some cases, provide
comparable instruction to the wet laboratory (Leonard, 1987b &
One of the most exciting developments in laboratory instruction is
the interfacing of laboratory measurement devices to a microcomputer.
Nicklin (1985) found that many physiological experiments could be
improved and made more accurate by interfacing common physiological
instruments to a microcomputer. He also found that the microcomputer
could act as a "lab partner" for students working individually on an
experiment and that interfacing was not expensive. Old kymograph
transducers interfaced with microcomputer-based workstations for
undergraduate physiology laboratories were found to be very
functional and successful (Rhodes, 1986). Morgan, Markell, and Feller
(1987) have given a complete description of interfacing muscle
physiology measuring devices to a microcomputer. One of these is a
pistol grip transducer that is used to study contraction of the human
trigger finger muscles. An excellent and illustrative guide for
inexpensively constructing interfaces for twelve common laboratory
instruments such as a thermistor, motion time, pH meter and humidity
meter has been prepared by Vernier (1987). A simple and inexpensive
interfacing kit, called Science Toolkit, is available from
Carolina Biological Supply and other science supply companies. The
basic module for the Apple II sells for $70 and contains experiments
in biology, chemistry, and physics. Additional modules for speed and
motion, earthquakes, and human physiology are available for $40, each
with additional experiments. A variety of other commercial
interfacing kits are available as well. For example, IBM is
developing a Personal Science Laboratory (PSL) that can be used in
college science laboratories.
There are educational benefits of using instruments interfaced to
a microcomputer in the laboratory. These benefits include, reducing
cost, improving effectiveness, saving student time (and thus
preventing boredom), learning to use state-of-the-art scientific
instrumentation, simplifying data analysis, making experimental
results more meaningful by allowing students to perceive
relationships between independent and dependent variables as the
experiment is completed, allowing students to more effectively
comprehend abstract concepts, and providing opportunity for
developing problem solving skills (Leonard, 1988b).
Ideas for classroom interfacing come from scientific research.
Among those ideas being developed in research that may have
interesting applications for the classroom are trackers for eye, head
and hand gestures, tracers of eye direction and focus tracking, and
voice recognition and synthesis (Foley, 1987). IBM currently has an
interactive system capable of recognizing 20,000 words (98% of the
typical English-speaking vocabulary). The development of much more
powerful microcomputers, CD-ROM, and image capturing by
microcomputers will soon be available for classroom use. Future
possibilities for laboratory interfacing are almost unlimited.
The recent development and research on applications of computer
technology for laboratory instruction in college science courses does
suggest that applications of computer technology in the laboratory
classroom is here to stay and that science faculty will continue to
develop new applications for instruction. The temptation to tinker
with this new technology is almost irresistible. The demonstrated
educational benefits of computer applications for student learning
also appears to be equivalent to or better than conventional
Recommendations to the Science Teacher
The first recommendation is that you try computer-based
technologies in your laboratory courses. The interfacing
instrumentation, for example, is not expensive and a teaching
laboratory needs only one to a few microcomputers. Interfacing has
been found to be useful and motivational in physiology, biology,
chemistry, earth science, and physics laboratory courses. Other
computer-based technologies, such as interactive videodisc and
computer laboratory simulation are useful as well.
A second recommendation is that you experiment with creative
applications of computer-based applications in your laboratory
course. Your students can be creative as well. Adding this new
dimension of technology to your laboratory investigations has all of
the advantages listed above.
Finally, you are encouraged to share the results of your creative
efforts with computer-based technologies in your laboratory courses
through the science teaching journals. We can all help each take full
advantage of these exciting activities.
Calvin, C. S. & Lasgowski, J. J. (1978). Effects of computer
simulated or laboratory experiments and student aptitude on
achievement and time in a college general chemistry laboratory
Curtis, J. B. (1986). Teaching college biology students the simple
linear regression model using an interactive microcomputer graphics
software package. Dissertation Abstracts International,
Foley, J. D. (1987). Interfaces for advanced computing. Scientific
American, 257, 127-135.
Leonard, W. H. (1987a). Interactive Videodisc: Computer Instruction
of the Future? Collegiate Microcomputer, 5, 197-201.
Leonard, W. H. (1987b). A comparison of student performance by
interactive videodisc versus conventional laboratory. Paper presented
to the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in
Science Teaching in Washington, D.C., April 1987.
Leonard, W. H. (1988a). A comparison of student reactions to biology
instruction by interactive videodisc or conventional laboratory.
Journal of Research Science Teaching, in press.
Leonard, W. H. (1988b). Interfacing in the biology laboratory: State
of the art. The American Biology Teacher, 50.
Miller, D. G. (1986). The integration of computer simulation into the
community college general biology laboratory. Dissertation
Abstracts International, 47(6), 2106A.
Morgan, R. M., Markel, C. S., & Feller R. F. (1987). A
microcomputer exercise on muscle Physiology. Journal of College
Science Teaching, XVII(10), 23-27.
Nicklin, R. C. (1985). The computer as a lab partner. Journal of
College Science Teaching, 15(1), 31-35.
Rhodes, S. B. (1986). A microcomputer kymograph. Journal of
College Science Teaching, 15 (6), 523-527.
Stevens, S. M. (1985). Interactive computer/videodisc lessons and
their effect on students' understanding of science. Paper presented
to the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in
Science Teaching in French Lick Springs, Indiana.
Vernier, D. L. (1987). How to build a better mousetrap.
Portland, OR: Vernier Software.
Waugh, M. L. (1987). The influence of interactive videodisc
simulations on student achievement in an introductory college
chemistry course. Paper presented to the Annual Meeting in
Washington, D.C., April 1987.
Research Matters - to the Science
is a publication of NARST