Stanford University
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Virtual lab's time to shine

Tiziana Vanorio, associate professor of geophysics, developed a virtual laboratory years ago as a teaching tool. In this interview, she describes how it facilitated her shift to remote instruction in 2020.

ClockSeptember 25, 2020

“I was really concerned the first day because I didn’t know what to expect. I think this is really the first time we—instructors and students—are learning so much at the same time. I was very honest with the students. I said this is an unprecedented situation. I don’t know how it’s going to work but we will try our best.

“Under normal circumstances, I would give a lecture on a type of rock property and its measurement, and then we’d go to the lab and I would do a hands-on demonstration. The students’ homework was to then run these tests on their own in the lab.

“To tell you the truth, when all this started and the spring quarter was approaching, there were moments where I said, ‘I don’t know how I would assess students’ learning.’ And I considered canceling the class.

“I had a virtual lab but it wasn’t created with this kind of scenario in mind. Then, at some point, I told myself: If I do not offer this class with this tool now, then when?

Tiziana Vanorio
Tiziana Vanorio teaches a lab course for undergraduate and graduate students where they learn how to measure properties of rocks and human-made geomaterials. Photo by Andrew Brodhead/Stanford News Service.

“I built the virtual lab several years ago as an open-access educational tool. It is a series of step-by-step video tutorials that explain the equipment you’d see in the lab. An advantage is more of the parts of the equipment are transparent, so you can see how gases or fluids move through rocks and materials. Otherwise, they are just black boxes where students touch and hold the knobs but they never understand why, seemingly magically, at some point, they get a certain measurement. There is another website—not a public one—where the students would virtually build the equipment, too.

“It takes time to learn laboratory skills. There are always those students who don’t want to touch instruments, and those who touch too much—which is a safety concern! The virtual lab is a way to provide them a lab where they can practice any time. If we can make the learning curve less steep and shorten the learning time, then students can focus sooner on research.

“This quarter, the virtual lab is a more central part of teaching. After the lecture, the students watch the tutorials and then we go back to the online class where they explain to me how they would perform the experiment. It’s a sort of blended approach. And then I advise students in breakout rooms and they build the instruments on the second website.

“I’m a person who likes to interact with the students. I really miss the nonverbal component of teaching. I long for eye contact. In shifting to online teaching, I’ve learned to go more slowly and I pose questions more frequently. This helps me interact with all of them more directly on Zoom and reinforces our relationships with each other.

“The first day, some of my students were not showing themselves on video in Zoom. I didn’t know why, but it was so strange to teach by myself in a room and not see who is on the other side. So I followed up with them. I said, ‘I saw that your video was off. If you have any problem with bandwidth or Internet connection, just let me know and we’ll see whether we can help.’ Everyone is now on video. I was reluctant to address it at first but I’m glad I did it.

“I hope the students still learn the art of data acquisition. So much goes in the act of taking measurements, from identifying the scientific questions we have to understanding what instruments to use and how to use them. All of this requires time but provides us with the opportunity of looking at the world in a different way. It’s in the human aspect of gathering data that we find surprises, leading to serendipitous discoveries!”

For more interviews with Stanford faculty about adapting to online instruction, please see this Stanford News story.


Media Contacts

Danielle T. Tucker

School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, 650-497-9541

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