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Tablet PCs bring lab research to life for professors and students.

posted April 9, 2009

Plastic cups in one hand, tablet PCs in the other, a pair of students headed toward the pond to gather their water samples.

That was three years ago. Since then, the use of tablets for field research by students in Brent Eldridge’s chemistry courses at Bluegrass Community & Technical College in Lexington, Ky., has become the norm and has expanded to other professors’ labs as well. But that wasn’t always the case. The professor began his lab effort with tablet PCs he borrowed overnight from the library, which he initially couldn’t believe the head librarian let him use.

“We did not have any lab where the students were using computers,” Eldridge says. “We didn’t have any way of collecting the data on a computer or anything like that.”

Traditionally, Bluegrass science labs — like many science programs at institutions across the nation — used what Eldridge terms “cookbook labs,” meaning the students worked entirely inside the lab on projects designed by the professors and typically tabulated their data in journals. They rarely, if ever, would leave campus grounds to gather data or specimens and samples, and if they did, they always returned to the lab to enter that data, often in paper notebooks and on spreadsheets.

“I wanted to take that experience outside — where chemistry happens,” Eldridge says.

So what leads to making lab use of tablets a success? A few simple steps, say Eldridge and others who’ve begun similar programs: Create a detailed plan in advance, make necessary infrastructure changes, overhaul your curriculum, prepare your students and be ready to deliver support services.

And, They’re Off

After his trial run with the borrowed equipment, Eldridge bought several Palm devices loaded with a Global Positioning System package. They proved too small to be serviceable, he says.

He then applied for a Hewlett-Packard grant, which Bluegrass didn’t get initially. But ultimately through an HP grant, the college received its first 20 HP Compaq tc4200 tablets, a presentation tablet and a cart to launch the tablet lab program. After that, Eldridge never looked back. He has since expanded the HP inventory to a total of 62 tablet PCs, and other chemistry teachers have joined him in revising their coursework to include fieldwork using the tablets.

Although he led the effort, Eldridge credits IT for integrating the systems into the campus systems infrastructure. “While not the first exposure to tablet PCs for our students, it was certainly the largest and most ambitious to date,” says Ray Forsythe, network manager.

To make sure the effort succeeded, the IT team met with Eldridge to understand his vision, says Campus IT Director Chad Hayes. “Basic needs such as power, networking, wireless configuration and security were discussed and agreed upon to provide an efficient classroom setting in which to conduct instruction,” he says.

The main work centered around deploying the systems. “The first round, the big thing was installing the software and controlling the administrative rights on each computer,” Eldridge says.

Another big challenge, says Forsythe, was providing access to the campus wireless Cisco network. “The building in which the class meets relies on an older, slower wireless network,” he says. “An additional wireless access point was installed to provide the speeds needed for the collaboration package.”

Changing Lesson Plans

From a teaching perspective, revamping the lab and field curriculum becomes a priority for university faculty, says J. Douglas Walker, professor of geology at the University of Kansas. He recommends figuring out what advantages the use of computers can bring to the coursework and also making sure that the technology doesn’t get in the way of the teaching concept at the core of the lab lesson. But ultimately, some aspects of the curriculum have to be retooled pretty much from scratch.

At Bluegrass, “there’s been a little trial and error in developing the live labs for the students,” Eldridge points out, noting that a chief issue has been figuring out something that can be done in three hours. “It will take longer than you think,” he cautions. He also urges providing enough time for teaching students how to use the applications provided for collating, mapping, analyzing, sharing and presenting data. “They’re not using poster board and scissors anymore,” Eldridge says.

Both Eldridge and Walker spend the first lab session training the students, who typically home in on the “go-to guy or gal” who’s already a power user, Eldridge says.

Taking the time to revise the courses and also to train students is well worth the effort, says Walker, who has used some type of portable device for lab work at the KU permanent field camp for more than a decade and relies on 20 Panasonic ToughBook 18 and 19 units.

“It fundamentally changed how we taught field geology,” he says. “For the students, almost every one of them is much more excited about this way of doing the assignments.”

Eldridge agrees. The tablets engage the students in ways that paper-driven lab work did not. For one, by sharing the data and presenting it in relation to the group’s findings, each student is far more accountable for his or her work. The process also illustrates in real time where, why and how a team might have gone astray.

Lost and broken systems have not been a problem for either the KU or Bluegrass professors or for IT. “Our involvement post-installation is minimal unless there are hardware or software issues. However, there have been very few since implementation,” says Scott Tomlin, a Bluegrass IT support specialist.

The tablets have proved so hardy at Kansas that the Geology Department repurposes units for other uses when it replaces or upgrades tablets for the labs, says Walker.

Drawing in Your Students

The dynamic nature of the lab at Bluegrass appealed to Alan Webb, who was among the initial group of students to use the tablet PCs and is now in the pharmacy program at the University of Kentucky. “Most lab assignments are: Go in, do it, get it done, forget about it. But I didn’t forget about this one,” Webb says.

Plus, in what Eldridge considers the chief achievement, students work much more collaboratively, which will serve those who pursue science and research careers, he says, noting that few discoveries result from someone toiling away alone with no input from other scientists.

Webb agrees, noting that he is still in touch with a student from that fall 2005 course, who still corresponds regularly with her lab partner, too.

The labs have become much more interactive — they create bonds among the students that simply did not occur previously, Eldridge notes.

But perhaps the most telling statement comes from Webb: “It’s an absolutely true statement that it will draw people into the sciences because it makes it applicable to the real world.”

Is It Road-Ready?

J. Douglas Walker, professor of geology at the University of Kansas, suggests some tips on equipment selection:

  1. Get a loaner and take it out in the field: How does it hold up to the environment and real-world use?
  2. Measure battery drain: Running live applications, how quickly does the battery drain if you conduct a lab field scenario?
  3. Gauge portability: Can a student haul the device around for several hours?
  4. Look at the screen closely: Is it bright enough — even in full sunlight?
  5. Check out the ergonomics: How does the keyboard feel? Do your wrists hurt? Do you have to hunch over to view the screen?
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