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Remote access science labs remove barriers to learning

A NANSLO robotically controlled, remote access microscope. Courtesy Sue Schmidt.

What does a student in Alaska have in common with a Missouri community college administrator, a mother of three attending classes in rural Virginia, and a soldier deployed in Turkey? They all may have a little trouble making it to science class tonight.

Make no mistake - this is not a joke. Sometimes inclement weather restricts everyone's mobility. Sometimes you simply can't set aside work or family obligations to attend class. Sometimes budget constraints mean a college has to make do with limited science equipment.

Thanks to creative use of technology, large capacity research and education networks and innovators like NANSLO, remote access labs might provide a much-needed bridge. North American Network of Science Labs Online (NANSLO) is a collaborative effort among institutions to develop high quality remote online labs in the science disciplines.

A fledgling, yet forward thinking startup, NANSLO hosts 27 lab activities at three labs - one at Red Rocks Community College in Colorado, another at Great Falls College Montana State University, both in the US, plus another at North Island College in British Columbia, Canada. In 2014, these labs provided remote access to scientific equipment for 1,500 students at 13 community colleges in the Colorado Community College System and five instiutions in four other states - access they wouldn't have had otherwise.

"If you want to give students a robust experience in science and get them engaged, this is the way to do it if you have limited capital investment," says Sue Schmidt, NANSLO project coordinator at WICHE.

The remote NANSLO interface for students. Courtesy Sue Schmidt.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) launched NANSLO in 2011 through a Next Generation Learning Challenge grant. At present, NANSLO is supported in part through a US Department of Labor Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training grant.

In addition to providing access to high-quality microscopes and spectrometers, Schmidt says remote labs improve student collaboration. Rather than one student working on a microscope while the rest watch passively, remote access increases participation by all students, enabling them to discuss results in real time no matter where they are in the world.

NANSLO also encourages exploration and training that extends beyond science fields. "Students taking a NANSLO lab use the remote interface to control the microscope, they collect data, and they make assessments," Schmidt notes. "They're doing that with computers, in real time, using data to make decisions - a very attractive combination to prospective employers."

In short, NANSLO marries open online courses with web-based labs to further the study of science. NANSLO lab activities, scheduling software, remote viewing capability, and robotically controlled lab equipment bring students to the lab - and to the science education they deserve.

--Lance Farrell

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