Interactive Learning & Design Lab

Model Comparisons

Science Inquiry Using Physical and Virtual Experiments: Systematic Investigation of Issues and Conditions for Learning

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Education Core Research Program

Both physical labs and virtual labs are often used in science teaching, and each have their advantages and disadvantages. With each providing different affordances for learning, it is often feasible to combine the two in a multitude of ways. This project will conduct a series of studies to:

  1. Uncover the differential benefits of physical versus virtual labs, for learners with a range of abilities and prior knowledge, and for content of different difficulty levels;
  2. Understand the differential effects of sequencing physical and virtual labs for different learners and content; and
  3. Examine how best to combine physical and virtual labs in mixed reality environments.

In addressing an important question in educational research, the project will help clarify the currently conflicting findings about the learning benefits of physical and virtual experimentation in fostering deep learning of science concepts. The research team will systematically examine the factors that affect learning from physical and virtual labs in studies conducted across three grade levels in three states.

Rigorous analytical tools will assess the effect of several factors on students’ learning processes and outcomes. Each year’s studies will build upon the results from the prior years. The first set of studies will address the comparison of virtual and physical experimentation. A second and third set of studies will investigate the sequencing of physical and virtual experimentation under different conditions. The fourth set of studies will explore an integration of the physical and the virtual for different learners and materials. In each study, a range of data will be collected to understand how students learn, their learning outcomes, and the strategies that teachers use to facilitate learning from physical and virtual labs.

Outcomes will include (i) comparisons of students’ learning between physical, virtual, sequenced physical and virtual, and integrated physical and virtual labs; (ii) knowledge about conditions that promote or hinder learning from physical and virtual labs individually and in various combinations; (iii) an understanding of how learning is affected in physical, virtual, sequenced, and integrated labs by differing contexts, topics, student prior knowledge and ability; and (iv) a clear and detailed qualitative picture of the differences and similarities in teacher strategies and student learning dynamics in physical, virtual, sequenced, and integrated labs. Publications resulting from the project will significantly extend current knowledge about learning from hands-on experimentation and learning from simulated experiments.