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Enhanced Learning Through A "Virtual Laboratory"

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2002 Annual Conference


Montreal, Canada

Publication Date

June 16, 2002

Start Date

June 16, 2002

End Date

June 19, 2002



Conference Session

Computers in Education Poster Session

Page Count


Page Numbers

7.502.1 - 7.502.7



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Paper Authors

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Michael Karweit

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Session 1520

Enhanced learning through a “virtual laboratory”

Michael Karweit Dept. Chemical Engineering, Johns Hopkins University


This work reports on the effectiveness of a “virtual laboratory” for helping students transfer engineering theory to the design and building of a model truss. When students had only a series of lectures in strength of materials, statics, and structures, students were only marginally able to incorporate that knowledge into reasonable designs. But, , by additionally providing students with a graphic-based design tool that allowed them to think in terms of the geometry of the application (\virtlab\bridge\truss.htm), the designs improved dramatically. Two educational objectives were achieved with this virtual laboratory: integrating ideas from multiple disciplines; and providing physical insight into a problem that is typically treated through the abstraction of mathematics.


Throughout high school and college, instruction typically consists of classroom lectures and textbook reading assignments with material organized into homogeneous modules—topics, chapters, or units. Questions or problems at ends of chapters are surely to be addressed within the chapter, and almost never from the chapters before. As a result, students are rarely required to develop problem-solving skills that span several topics or disciplines. In fact, they are not even required to completely understand the problems they are assigned. To solve an end-of-chapter problem, many students— without reading the chapter—will thumb through the chapter until they find an equation or formula that seems to fit the problem. Then, they “plug and chug”, i.e., they fill in the known values and algebraically solve for the unknown ones.

Unfortunately, such problems are not at all representative of those found in science and engineering. And, the somewhat-automatic problem-solving technique does not enhance the student’s ability to solve real problems. Yet, success in solving textbook problems can give the student the false sense that he has mastered the material. It is inert knowledge: students know something, but they are unable to use it 1 .

In contrast to classroom instruction, Collins, Brown, and Newman2 suggest that a much better model for learning is the apprenticeship—years of training under the guidance of a practicing professional. In this environment, students develop skills in the context of applications. students learn not just the “what”, but also the “how” and the “when”, and “under what circumstances.” But such training is not practical in a

“Proceedings of the 2002 American Society for Engineering Education annual Conference & Exposition Copyright ã 2002, American Society for Engineering Education”

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Karweit, M. (2002, June), Enhanced Learning Through A "Virtual Laboratory" Paper presented at 2002 Annual Conference, Montreal, Canada. 10.18260/1-2--11132

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