seal  Purdue News

November 20, 2003

Purdue creates virtual labs in college classrooms statewide

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University faculty have developed a program that will help bring the equipment of the School of Technology's Applied Energy Laboratory to classrooms throughout the state.

With a grant from the National Science Foundation, mechanical engineering technology faculty members William J. Hutzel, Heather L. Cooper and Sarah Leach are piloting a program that would allow students to remotely access, monitor and control a variety of lab systems.

In the project's early phases, mechanical engineering technology faculty and students in Purdue's Statewide Technology Program will be able to use the Internet to access heating and cooling laboratory equipment on the West Lafayette campus from their own classrooms throughout Indiana.

The grant provides nearly $100,000 to develop a system to test the effectiveness of that remote-access equipment on the learning of students. The results could have extensive implications on distance learning and education at smaller satellite campuses around the country, said Hutzel, an associate professor.

Hutzel said that while distance-learning programs are common in some fields, engineering and technology programs have lagged behind because of questions surrounding lab experiences.

"You can never completely replicate a laboratory experience by using the Internet," Hutzel said. "The question is, 'How close can we get?' The challenge is to provide distance learners or students at satellite locations with as many opportunities as possible that students at the main campuses have. The future of distance learning in scientific fields hinges on that challenge."

In addition to the main West Lafayette campus, the School of Technology allows Indiana students to earn a variety of associate and bachelor's degrees at locations throughout the state. The school operates seven other sites in Anderson/Muncie, Columbus/Southeast Indiana, Indianapolis, Kokomo/Lafayette, New Albany, Richmond and South Bend/Elkhart.

The majority of student at these locations are working adults.

All locations except Indianapolis house mechanical engineering technology departments and will be participating in the pilot program.

Leach, an assistant professor at Purdue's South Bend/Elkhart location, will work with Hutzel and Cooper on assessing the educational impact and student opinion of the remote access. Leach said the approach could improve the opportunities for her students by giving them access to labs with equipment that is not practical to purchase for each of Purdue's technology locations.

"We have wonderful equipment for the freshman and sophomore level courses, but it is not feasible to duplicate all of the main campus' laboratories at each location throughout the state," Leach said. "If there is a way for our students to take advantage of West Lafayette's more specialized resources, it will provide great supplemental opportunities for them."

Results of the research could not only help educators develop the most effective ways to teach students, it will be valuable to organizations that accredit engineering and technology programs that are currently struggling to assess the quality of distance and satellite programs, said Cooper, an assistant professor.

"If we can show that students can gain the knowledge through remote experiences, it could change the way educators think about distance education and accreditation," Cooper said. "It could finally make distance learning a viable option in these lab-intensive fields."

Dennis R. Depew, dean of Purdue's School of Technology, said Hutzel's work with remote access laboratories is important not only to Purdue, but also potentially to educators throughout the country.

"The work with our School of Technology locations throughout the state allows the school not only to be on the forefront of this important research, but we are able to use it to provide service to college students throughout Indiana," Depew said.

Writer: Matt Holsapple, (765) 494-2073,

Sources: Dennis R. Depew, (765) 494-2552,

Heather L. Cooper, (765) 494-9653,

William J. Hutzel, (765) 494-7528,

Sarah Leach, (574) 232-4172,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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