Computer-Based Technology in College Science Laboratory Courses

Computer-Based Technology in College Science Laboratory Courses


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 educational outcomes.

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 & 1988a).

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 laboratory instruction.

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.

by William H. Leonard, Professor of Science Education and Professor of Biology, Clemson University, Clemson, SC 29634.


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 course.

Curtis, J. B. (1986). Teaching college biology students the simple linear regression model using an interactive microcomputer graphics software package. Dissertation Abstracts International, 46(7), a.

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.