274796 How Real Is Real Enough? Student and Expert Perceptions of an Industrially Situated Virtual Laboratory Project

Monday, October 29, 2012: 1:20 PM
328 (Convention Center )
Debra Gilbuena1, Ben Sherrett2 and Milo D. Koretsky1, (1)Chemical, Biological, and Environmental Engineering, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR, (2)College of Mechanical, Industrial, and Manufacturing Engineering, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR

Preparation of engineering students for industrial practice is an important outcome of engineering education. We propose one way to help achieve this outcome is to implement a game-based learning system, such as a virtual laboratory.

Virtual laboratories can be examined in regards to the role and context within which they intend to place students. From this perspective, two primary classifications emerge. In the first type, the learner is placed in the role of a student in a typical classroom or teaching laboratory. In this role, the learner performs tasks common in traditional classrooms or laboratories except they are performed on a computer. Many virtual laboratories fit into this classification. In this study, we report on a second type of virtual laboratory, where the software and instructional design attempts to remove the learner from the role and context of a traditional classroom or laboratory and ask them to play a different role. Asking participants to assume alternative roles is a common practice in games. We focus primarily on a particular type of game in which the learner is placed in the role of a practicing professional. We term this case an industrially-situated virtual laboratory.

An industrially-situated virtual laboratory can provide a transition between academia and industry, offering students the experience of solving “real world” problems within the familiar setting of the university. While such projects have been described in the engineering education literature, there is less work examining the extent to which these “authentic” and “situated” learning systems need to replicate professional practice. That is, for learning systems intended to prepare students for industrial practice, how real is real enough?

There are several ways that providing an authentic experience to students can help them prepare for industrial practice. First, if students believe the task they are completing is likely to be one that they will face as a professional, they will be more motivated to engage in it. Second, contextual similarity allows the students to more readily transfer the knowledge and skills that they have learned in the classroom to problems in the workplace. Third, engaging in a task in which the cognitive and social interactions are reflective of practice helps them develop a more sophisticated epistemological view of engineering.

This paper examines one industrially-situated virtual laboratory which has been designed to replicate the experiences of an engineer in professional practice. This learning system is based on a process development task in the semiconductor manufacturing industry where experiments are conducted using a virtual laboratory. Previously we have reported on how students and experts complete the task. In this study, we wish to examine the students’ and experts’ perceptions of the authenticity of the task.

Two data sources were used. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with three experts who had substantial experience as engineers in industry and with 12 students after they had completed the virtual laboratory project. Second, we use transcripts of think-aloud protocol data from four student teams and three expert teams who completed the project. These transcripts were examined to see references to “industry” and real experiences as the participants were engaged in the project.

In general, participants found the task to be consistent with tasks that participants had engaged in (or expected to) while in industrial practice. Evidence from the interviews identified aspects of the project that are perceived as representative of the "real world." Two of the primary aspects of the project that were perceived to contribute to authenticity included the open-endedness of the problem statement (e.g., no “one” correct solution or solution path exists) and the cost constraint. Other aspects of the project were perceived as less- or non-authentic, e.g., the facilitative coaching sessions. We argue that these less authentic aspects provide more scaffolding than the "real world" and are conducive to learning. Such scaffolding is necessary, and can be implemented without sacrificing the essential perception of authenticity that motivates and situates learning.

We argue that virtual laboratories or games can be used very effectively to help students transition between academia and industry. We propose the degree of scaffolding should be intentionally incorporated into the instructional design, depending on where students are in that transition.

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See more of this Session: Computing and Technology in Education: Game-Based Learning
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