sealPurdue News

October 1994

Computers breathe new life into laboratory experience

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- It's every student's dream: a science lab partner who can show you how to set up an experiment, speaks well, and has virtually all the answers.

Such laboratory geniuses are sprouting up across the nation as high schools and universities integrate computers into the laboratory, creating "virtual" laboratories that allow students to change experimental conditions to test various outcomes.

"The computer adds an incredible amount of flexibility and creativity to the laboratory," says Clark D. Gedney, a computer specialist in Purdue University's Department of Biological Sciences who works with scientists in various fields to develop software programs that combine photographs, video and sound.

The animated simulations allow students to investigate how the various components in an experiment interact with each other, Gedney says. "For example, students can add or remove electrons from a simulated cell membrane to see how it affects the activity of the cell."

Such software can allow students to see things they normally wouldn't see in the laboratory, he adds. An example: Using a program developed by Purdue biologist Laurie Iten, freshman students can study each step in the development of a chick embryo. Click to 48 hours and see how the embryo developed. Missed something? Click to 24 hours.

It's embryology without eye strain, dissection without formaldehyde.

In many instances, students can perform experiments more efficiently with the computer, Gedney says. "Students often complain they don't receive enough instruction on how to perform an experiment," he says. "To address this concern, we've included computer video clips and animations that review procedures step-by-step. Students may watch the clip as many times as necessary."

Does it work? Purdue biology Professor David Filmer, who uses video clips and animations to help instruct students in his microbiology laboratory, reports a 40 percent to 50 percent increase in the number of students who performed experiments correctly on the first try.

Generally, the computer programs are used to supplement traditional laboratory experiments, Gedney says. "The conventional wet-lab still plays an important role in science education. The computer simply adds another dimension by giving students opportunities to try different variables or helping them to visualize what occurred during a reaction."

In some cases, computer simulations may offer benefits over traditional learning techniques. For example, first-year pharmacy students at Purdue are using computer simulations to analyze the behavior of various types of drugs on animals. The program, developed by Gedney and pharmacologists in Purdue's School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences, has reduced the number of animals used in some lower-level teaching laboratories.

"The computer offers multiple advantages," Gedney says. "First, it reduces the need for experimenting on animals. Second, it facilitates rudimentary learning by simplifying the experiment, as individual animals may respond differently to a chemical or drug."

Students in Purdue's School of Veterinary Medicine are involved in the development of programs to simulate surgical techniques in 3-D, he adds.

Gedney, who received a doctoral degree in biology from Purdue in 1975, was a researcher for several years before starting his own business. In 1990, Louis Sherman, head of Purdue's Department of Biological Sciences, hired Gedney because of Sherman's keen interest in the use of computers in the classroom and laboratory.

Since then, Gedney has developed numerous applications for courses and collaborated with dozens of teachers at both the high-school and college levels. Most of the courseware developed at Purdue is available to high-school and university teachers nationwide.

The newest program, called "Molecules of Life," allows students and teachers to visualize, manipulate and experiment with various particles involved in life processes, such as proteins, carbohydrates and nucleic acids. The program, released in August on compact disc, is being distributed through W.C. Brown Publishers.

"These discs provide teachers with resources that they ordinarily wouldn't have access to or wouldn't have time to put together," Gedney says. "In many instances, the animations illustrate principles established by leaders in the field."

Gedney says the courseware developed at Purdue stands out from other programs because it is developed with the collaboration of experts in their fields. For example, last year a researcher with an international reputation for his work in structural biology helped write a program to visualize molecules and proteins. This fall, that software program was distributed in more than 100,000 textbooks nationwide. It also became part of the "Molecules of Life" program.

"This is a great example of how research and teaching can work hand-in-hand to enhance the educational experience for students," Gedney says. "Through such courseware, some of the top researchers are passing their knowledge directly on to students nationwide."

Source: Clark D. Gedney, (765) 494-6610; Internet:
Laurie Iten, (765) 494-8113; Internet:
David Filmer, (765) 494-4921; Internet:
Writer: Susan Gaidos, (765) 494-2081; Internet,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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