By Alison Sandstrom, TLS staff writer

Physics Prof. Michael Donkers believes the best way to learn is to do.

“There’s nothing that beats getting down and dirty with what’s going on in the lab,” says the Carleton University contract instructor.

However, students often don’t have an opportunity to explore all the theories and phenomena they learn about in class in the laboratory, whether it’s due to a lack of time or resources, or dangerous materials.

To help address this situation, Donkers is developing a Virtual Lab Environment (VLE). This set of interactive modules will allow students to set input parameters, conduct simulated experiments and receive data complete with reading errors, statistical fluctuations and occasional variations.

“The idea of the VLE is to create a very realistic computer interface which would model very closely what an actual experimentalist might have in the lab,” says Donkers. “It gives students a way to virtually interact with some of the concepts they’ve been studying in class.”

A mock-up of the VLE

A mock-up of the VLE

Donkers won the 2016 Contract Instructor Teaching Innovation Grant to develop the VLE. The $6,000 grant will allow him to hire a summer student to design visuals and graphics for the project. He’s currently coding the lab experiments himself.

Donkers says almost any physical experiment could be simulated in the VLE. When it’s up and running, math and science students of all majors will be able to use it.

“Basically any science that lives on data can be modeled in the VLE, that includes physics, chemistry, engineering, geology, I can even envision it being used for economics,” he says.

Donkers says he was inspired to create the VLE by a set of simulations from the University of Colorado. He’s used them in his courses before, but found them limiting because they didn’t give students a lot of control over input parameters and always returned answers free of measurement and reading errors.

“There was no need for the student to think ‘what in the real world could be affecting why I’m not seeing the things I expect,’” he says.

So Donkers wanted to build on the idea behind the simulations.

“Let’s have students have to think for themselves what might be impacting their results and therefore be able to draw conclusions and write a good lab report,” he says.

Donkers hopes to have the some early prototypes of the VLE ready for testing by the end of the year.