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From Big to Small: BCcampus helps educators in Bella Coola, Cranbrook and Courtenay offer science courses online.

From outer space exploration to magnifying microscopic organisms, BCcampus is helping put science labs online. Now in its third year,the Web-based Associate of Science Degree Project (WASc) aims to branch out and offer courses in physics, chemistry, geology and biology.

North Island College currently offers a unique and innovative on-line astronomy lab course, where students can operate the remote telescope at Tatla Lake from the comfort of their own home. Soon students will be able to do the same kind of remote lab work with a microscope as well as a telescope.

Ron Evans, an astronomy instructor at North Island College is now involved with the project. He explained the online geology courses have already been run at College of the Rockies and the on-line physics courses may pilot in the fall of 2010, while the hope is for chemistry and biology to be ready by the fall of 2011. Eventually, NIC may offer the entire Associate of Science degree online.

Albert Balbon is the Supervisor of Distributed Learning at North Island College. Based in Courtenay, on Vancouver Island, he leads the development of the Remote Web-based Science Laboratory (RWSL), which is a software and robotic interface that allows remote learners to interact with scientific hardware entirely over the Internet. RWSL was initially funded by the Inukshuk Fund and now it is supported with BCcampus funding.

Balbon is particularly excited about the latest addition to the project: an on-line microscope located at Balbon’s campus in Courtenay in a “remote” science lab. “It’s a lot of work – no one else has done this,” he says. “Everything is an unknown for us and as a non-scientist, I’m getting the opportunity to learn about these experiments in great detail.”

The RWSL that Balbon is working on allows a group of students from anywhere in the world to participate in a laboratory experiment at the same time. The goal is to give each student the ability to control lab equipment, in as close to real-time as possible, using an Internet browser on their home computer.

The leading edge can also stretch out ahead of established practice: both Balbon and Evans note one challenge is getting their online labs articulated (approved for credit in B.C.’S post-secondary system). In a separate project, BCcampus has funded an applied research project, “Articulation and Transfer of Web-based and Remote Science Labs” that explored this question.

One of the physics labs has been tested with a small number of Kwantlen University students as a research project. Preliminary feedback indicates students had little trouble adapting to the online lab. This was a preliminary test with only a few students so they hope to have a larger group test the RWSL labs this fall.

Aside from testing the labs, everything is running close to schedule. The initial time line for the entire Associate of Science degree to be offered online was 5 years. With the project in its third year, Balbon estimates that a finishing date 2 years down the road is in the cards.

Meanwhile, Evans continues to offer students worldwide a chance to look at distant galaxies and globular clusters using the Tatla Lake On-line Observatory (TLOO) that is based at the Tatla Lake School on the Chilcotin Plateau. Evans travels to the telescope at Tatla Lake, where he monitors student use of the telescope when they are scheduled to do some telescopic observation. Evans enjoys doing this for students because he feels distance learning, especially with labs, is a great opportunity. “As long as it’s dark and clear students can use the telescope from anywhere they have Internet access anytime I am at TLOO,” says Evans.

Regardless of any obstacles that may arise, Evans and Balbon remain positive toward both projects. “We’re all very excited about this,” says Evans, while explaining that programs like this help both students and the institution; With online lab courses available, more students may choose to sign up, thus increasing overall enrollment.

For more information regarding this project, contact Ron Evans or Albert Balbon.