Virtual Laboratories

“Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.”

– Mark Twain

Chapter contents

9.1    Introduction

9.2    Authentic Learning and the Degree of Realism in Simulations

9.3    Virtual Lab Applications

9.4    Variations of Standard Virtual Labs

9.5    Key Elements of Successful Virtual Labs


9.1 Introduction

Virtual labs or simulations are increasingly realistic and are rapidly increasing in use. Sometimes a virtual laboratory is (confusingly) referred to as one where computers act as the instruments in a normal residential lab (for example, LabVIEW software with virtual instruments).1

Research at Vanderbilt University showed that virtual labs based around traditional undergraduate electrical engineering topics used prior to conventional physical labs can reduce the time taken to complete the physical labs.2 In addition, the virtual lab can be taken during the student’s own time, thus reducing demands made on the busier physical labs. In addition, requests for assistance with physical lab equipment were also reduced due to a better understanding by the students.

Significant improvements in learning (in two chemical engineering courses) were demonstrated by not only having students experiment with simulations on their own (thus helping them to visualize the theory and equations) but also in ensuring that the students continued experimenting with simulations, but with instructor-guided questioning.3 The reason is likely to be that the breadth of the exploration space is simply too large and students cannot focus on the appropriate issues without some guidance. It is also possible that students may misinterpret the simulations and end up with a misconception. Bear in mind that this misinterpretation could happen even with the provision of electronic tutorials and help screens.

The following section examines the interesting topic of achieving an authentic experience in simulations (or virtual labs) followed by a discussion of typical applications. Other manifestations of a standard virtual lab are then detailed. The chapter is concluded with a list of the key elements of virtual labs.


9.2 Authentic learning and the degree of realism in simulations

Many of us are probably aware that meaningful learning will only occur if it closely relates to the context in which the learner will be applying it in her or her work.4

Typical characteristics of authentic learning tasks in an online environment (which are worthwhile bearing in mind for virtual labs) include:

• They relate directly to the real world.

• Being real world, these tasks are often somewhat poorly defined and require the student to further define what work is needed to complete the learning activity.

• These tasks need to be worked on over an extensive period of time–days to months rather than minutes.

• These tasks require a multitude of perspectives in undertaking them.

• Collaboration is a key to effective discharge of these tasks. A student working on her own would miss out on a big part of the learning experience.

• Reflection is a crucial component of the task where greater depth and understanding is achieved.

• These tasks are not restricted to one niche area but generally extend across disciplines and subjects.

• Assessment of activities is built into the task as a seamless component.

• These tasks create products which are valued in their own right and stand-alone and do not form subcomponents of other activities.

• Finally, these tasks allow for a multitude of outcomes and solutions as opposed to only one result allowed.

Simulations are often a big part of providing authentic tasks but they can be ferociously expensive. For example, aircraft pilot training simulators are renowned for their extremely high level of realism but the supporting software and hardware can be extremely expensive to develop and maintain.5 Research has shown that achieving an extremely high level of physical replication of the work environment through simulation is not vital to a successful learning experience. What is key, however, is ensuring the students are engaged in engaging tasks related to the work environment.


9.3 Virtual lab applications

Examples of virtual labs are provided in this section.

A few (brief) examples of virtual labs

A virtual radio-pharmacy was created where the learners were represented by avatars.6 The learners could experiment with the radio-pharmacy equipment and carry out specific scenarios in a three-dimensional simulation of the lab environment. This allowed learners to collaborate with each other and with the equipment in the replica of a real lab.

A four-stroke medium diesel engine fault simulator was used to demonstrate the relationship “between the diesel engine technical state and its operating parameters, functions and features”.7 The value in this simulator was the low-cost and ease of installing it onboard a ship, for example, where it would be particularly useful for the training of ship engineers.


Figure 9.1: A four-stroke diesel engine virtual lab


A simulated electronics lab for a Wien bridge oscillator was created and the students and faculty were surveyed afterwards. The survey showed that it demonstrated self-efficacy and self-reliance as a result of the lab activity and both learners and faculty indicated they felt it could be usefully used in conjunction with a physical hardware lab especially in providing repetition and thus enhancing the learning process.8

Civil engineering virtual labs 

water resources engineering

At the University of Utah Water Resources Engineering department two virtual labs were created for two courses: Hydraulics (undergraduate) and Open Channel Flow (postgraduate).9 The undergraduate labs had over 80 students and with equipment limitations each weekly three-hour lab session had to be halved. In order to provide more support, short digital movies were created for the various lab sessions ranging from hydrostatic forces, Bernouilli’s theorem, orifice and free jet flow to centrifugal pumps.


Figure 9.2: Bernouilli's theorem


Animations (of one minute each) were also created demonstrating key concepts such as for Bernouilli showing water flowing through a tapered pipe that changes the energy distribution. An online calculator allowed the student to change parameters (such as pipe diameters) and confirm the results.

An assessment was conducted using a quiz and it showed that students who viewed either the videos or animations achieved improved results compared to those who didn’t. The confounding variable is that there is undoubtedly some effect from more time on the task.

Industrial automation virtual labs

Virtual laboratory for fundamental control principles

A simulation of a reaction wheel pendulum was developed using Easy Java Simulation (Ejs) at the Universidad Politécnica De Madrid in Spain.10 Effectively, this is a simple pendulum in parallel with a torque controlled lumped inertia system. This provides an opportunity for students to simulate and study the system when disturbances are applied studying two aspects: disturbance rejection and maximum disturbances that the system was able to reject. Ejs doesn’t require a high level of programming skills and this was thus reasonably easy to implement. The simulation showed a high degree of fidelity to the physical equipment.

Electrical engineering virtual labs

Electric power system protection

An effective virtual lab for both on-campus and distance learning graduate students at the University of Idaho was set up.11 The study of electric power system protection can be a difficult and expensive subject with labs costing of the order of half a million dollars or more. Unfortunately the enrolment of students in this subject is generally limited, making the use of simulation software an attractive proposition. Malfunctioning and incorrectly set up power systems can be the cause of massive power failures encompassing whole parts of a national grid, hence it is important that students are exposed to at least realistic simulations. The authors incorporated PC-based relay simulations for students to experiment with both on and off-campus. The distance education (off-campus) students wanted a more practical and applied course. The widely available Alternative Transients Program (ATP) version of the EMTP (Electromagnetic Transients Program) simulation software package was used and the students simulated power system faults (zone 1, zone 2 and reverse faults) on different parts of the power network (a part of the Bonneville Power Administration system) and investigated how the relay models responded. The experience of the class and instructors was mixed due to problems setting up the ATP software and difficulties in working with the complex EMTP software data files. However, with experience in using the software it is anticipated that this will be an easier process in subsequent courses. The great advantage is that in using the simulation software the distance learning students had the same “laboratory” experience as those on-campus.

Virtual electrical machines labs

The traditional electrical machines labs were based on the ElectroVolt equipment and had eight different exercises: measurement of impedance and power, transformer excitation and equivalent circuit, dc generators, dc motor load characteristics, synchronous machines, induction motors and finally, single phase motors.12

A virtual lab was created using LabVIEW which could interface to MATLAB and Simulink with stand alone applications created using the Application Builder Toolkit. In using LabVIEWand MATLAB no detailed knowledge of text-based programming was required–everything could be done graphically.

A few labs that were created included:

• Single Phase Transformers. Voltage could be applied to the primary of a single-phase two-winding transformer and the primary current and secondary voltage measured and a hysteresis curve could be obtained. A linear relationship between flux and exciting current (with non-linear core losses neglected) could be ensured with a small input voltage.

• With dc generators, magnetization curves (armature voltage vs. field current at a constant speed) of a dc generator could be plotted.

• Similarly, with synchronous machines torque angle on output power could be plotted; as well as synchronous reactance on output power and finally, the effect of internally generated voltage on output power.

• Finally, each of the virtual lab modules also contained an online assessment of the work with a set of basic questions with only one correct answer.


Figure 9.3: Virtual transformer lab


Note that ElectroVolt now provides realistic virtual labs which replicates much of its traditional labs.

Electronics engineering remote labs

Resistor colour code virtual lab

A simple lab (or perhaps more appropriately, a quiz) was created to demonstrate the calculation of the resistor value and selection of resistor color bands using Java.13 The resistor was composed by combining seven images together. There were some technical problems with slow network connections in that the images wouldn’t load up quickly enough leaving blank color rings. An improved version of this lab was undertaken using Flash.


Figure 9.4: Resistor Color Code Virtual Lab


A virtual circuit laboratory

There are many examples of commercially available virtual circuit programs (e.g. Electronics Workbench and Pspice). However, the debugging features sometimes lacked certain features.14 Typical problems encountered in a lab included bad connections and components, incorrect wiring, poor instrument settings and power problems. Finally, it was pointed out that even for a perfectly working circuit, the student’s understanding of precisely what is happening may be deficient. A virtual circuit laboratory was created at the University of Colorado, Boulder, to help students in preparing for their physical labs using a realistic and familiar breadboard (and messy spaghetti wiring). Electronic components, function generator, oscilloscope and power supplies could easily be connected up with a realistic level of uncertainty built into the component values. The final circuit is then exported to SPICE to calculate the resulting values that are displayed on the oscilloscope.

Foundations of logical design using a virtual lab

An effective virtual lab (freely available) providing simulations of logical design with standard industry-specific integrated circuits (ICs) was created at (in the Dev-C++) requiring a 1024x768 monitor.15 Learners can insert chips, wire components and change switch and pushbutton states and confirm outputs. This lab’s Spanish origins have meant that it is extensively used in Spain and South America to great acclaim. The main part of the program is the breadboard, where the students can insert and interconnect ICs, visual indicators, seven-segment displays, timer outputs, switches, pushbuttons and voltage sources. Connections are made by connecting lines between the key points. Standard TTL ICs (ranging from basic logic gates, combinatorial and sequential circuits) as well as Application Specific Integrated circuits (ASICs) are supported in this virtual lab. Feedback, especially from the Spanish speaking population, was very positive but its spread into the English-speaking world may be somewhat more limited due to language issues. Proposed improvements include components with bidirectional pins and tri-state outputs as well as CMOS devices.

A blended version of laboratories using simulations

Some great research on the use of simulations of electronic laboratories has come up with a few excellent ideas, which also make intuitive sense.16 As has been discussed earlier, simulations of laboratories can increase student participation, as they are not restricted to a specific time or place. They can also simplify scheduling and reduce the cost of expensive lab equipment.

A simulation package called the Electronic Laboratory Simulator (ELS) was used in a few comparative tests. The ELS provides a simulated power supply, a breadboard for making connections, a digital multimeter, an oscilloscope, a function generator and a set of tutorials. Those students who undertook the simulated lab were able to undertake the physical lab far quicker and were far more knowledgeable about the concepts. Further tests partially showed that students who did both the simulation and lab had overall significant improvements between pre-and post-tests for all labs but not necessarily on a comparison of each individual lab. There were a few confounding variables such as other learning tools and there was an element of self-selection with the more motivated cleverer students perhaps undertaking the simulations. Where the students undertook combined labs (simulation and physical labs) against solely physical labs, they had slightly improved post-test scores.

Electronics workbench software

An experiment at West Virginia University with remote experimentation using Electronics Workbench software was not particularly successful with only two out of four students actually completing the lab work (and only one really achieving a measure of success).17 Even the simple process of installing the program was challenging. The key problems were manifold and included insufficient time allocated to the course (often to deal with trivial problems), meaningful technical discussions only occurred in face-to-face sessions, specific times should have been set aside to work on the course, immediate instructor feedback for lab problems was non-existent and students didn’t know how to work at a distance.

Communications and netowrking engineering virtual labs 

Microwave engineering Smith Chart online calculator

An online Smith Chart ( was designed to help students undertake impedance matching calculations for amplifier design calculations.18 Typical procedures involved in plotting on the Smith Chart such parameters as stability, gain, VSWR and noise figures. The tool allowed for an online session to operate in broadcast mode to a group of students, thus allowing the instructor to provide remote access to what he is demonstrating. This allows the students to follow the instructor’s screen as she goes through a step-by-step procedure. The simulator was written in C# with an ASP active page. A survey conducted of 160 students enrolled in the undergraduate Microwave Engineering course at Princess Sumaya University of Technology (Jordan) showed that 80% of respondents valued the online Smith chart; however 30% of students indicated some difficulties in internet connectivity, user interface friendliness and accessibility.

Simulation but remotely

Although having a remote lab can make for a more economical solution, one still has the ongoing challenge of finding money for real equipment that requires constant upgrading. Hence a solution that can simulate (or emulate) real routers and switches with PCs can make economical sense. An excellent solution had been set up at East Carolina University using virtual machine-based remote labs (i.e. running as remote labs).19 The authors pointed out that in terms of remote labs and simulations, four areas have been extensively studied over the past years: remote access systems and remote lab architecture design, course management and delivery systems for distance learning, simulation-based lab teaching and virtual machine-based remote labs.

They felt that simulation software that runs on the student’s machine can only be used for teaching basic concepts and is often highly proprietary. On the other hand, virtual technology allows for multiple operating systems running on the same machine simultaneously and which can then communicate with each other via an IP-based subnetwork. A freely available router emulator called Dynamips was used to replace the traditional lab architecture. In the traditional lab architecture, the student would log into the remote lab through a VPN, and thence through to a central switch or access server that would then result in a connection to the lab equipment comprising routers, switches and PCs. This was then used to teach intermediate networking classes using routing protocols such as EIGRP, OSPF, RIPv2 and BGP and network analyzers, performance monitors and network management client tools. The Dynamips router emulator running on one PC could now replace the entire rack of routers and switches. Eight PCs were set up with Dynamips for the eight graduate students undertaking the graduate networking class. Although no survey was available at the time on the student’s feedback, the results showed improved lab availability and performance and the hands-on experiences were identical to that with real equipment. The students could virtually wire their own desired network topology.

Virtual physics and networking labs

The definition of virtual labs appears to overlap with that of remote labs in the definition used here, where it is defined as, “to interact with colleagues, access instrumentation, share data and computational resources, and access information in digital libraries”.20 However, the two examples discussed below do not have any real instrumentation access so are examples of virtual labs. A virtual physics lab (VPLab) was created allowing students to perform experiments as if they were in a normal physics lab. The provision of real video clips of the real experiment being performed was considered beneficial. The design goal was to avoid making the simulation feel like a video game, but many students indicated that they were distracted by exactly this feeling. Students who had done the real experiments in a real lab felt that these simulated experiments were considerably different.

Another virtual lab was Drexel University's virtual networked laboratory (VNL) for their BS degree in IT. This allowed the student (with assistance from an instructor) to construct the lab access as well. The VNL is operated on a server and the student then performs all experiments required by the instructor, who also logs on to the VNL and observes what the student is doing.

Virtual engineering labs vs. traditional physical labs

A comparison was made between virtual and physical labs with a sample of junior and senior level undergraduate students in four-year degree programs in electronics engineering technology programs.21 The labs were communication system exercises on modulation and demodulation. The sample comprised 80 students and they were randomly assigned to either the virtual simulation or physical labs. The results clearly showed that the students in the virtual simulation lab did significantly better than the physical lab group in the conceptual tests. A second test administered three weeks later showed that the grades of the simulation group decreased but the physical group stayed the same (but were still lower than the virtual lab group). The virtual lab group also used considerably less lab time.

It is thus suggested that virtual labs using simulation software offered a good replacement for physical labs especially where hands-on experimentation (such as manipulation of equipment) is not a key part of the lab.

Fiber attenuation measurements

A combination of a hands-on lab with dual trace oscilloscope, function generator and optical fiber components was used to measure cable loss and cable bending loss at De Vry University.22 An equivalent simulation (developed by ATel corporation) with fiber optics cables demonstrated the essential physics and operation. This allowed students to achieve far greater insight into the process of examining the types of loss mechanisms, composition impact on losses and impact of wavelength of fiber.

Chemical engineering virtual labs

Virtual hands-on liquid chromatography laboratories

The low pressure Liquid Chromatography system is a complex item of equipment that can present a challenging learning experience.23 ATel has modeled the processes used with the equipment virtually and they were used at Montgomery County Community College.


Figure 9.5: Chromatography virtual lab


The simulations could be run in three modes. In the equipment mode, students can use animations and images to study the device in considerable detail. In the process mode, the students learn how to operate a system. Finally, in the experimental mode, the students can systematically practice what they would do with a real instrument (e.g. manipulate virtual labware and materials, connect components and program the system controller).

The recommended approach to learning uses simulations to initially underst and the theory and principles of protein purification, followed by an examination of the chromatography system, then the undertaking of virtual experiments with a final assessment of the skills and know-how gained. Once this has been successfully achieved, the students are allowed to have hands-on access to a real item of equipment.

Mining virtual lab

Virtual reality in a lab

An underground mine was demonstrated using virtual reality (VR).24 A virtual world is created in a database with points in space and textures. Points are connected to form planes (referred to as polygons) with a specific color. The virtual world is rendered through a process of calculating the scene for a virtual camera view. Desktop VR is done simply through a computer screen, but the more interesting immersive VR is achieved using a head mounted display with two miniature displays in front of the user’s eyes. Headphones complete the system. Objects can be manipulated using a data glove that measures the bend of the user’s fingers. In order to walk (or fly) in this virtual world, a space controller comprising a normal joystick or computer mouse can be employed.

Virtual reality in mining

Virtual Reality technology is a great way of helping students visualize difficult theoretical concepts.25 The Australian research organization, CSIRO (Division of Exploration and Mining) used a combination of a four meter hemispherical dome projection screen, a 5DT data glove and 3G iPhone (three accelerometers) to interact with a virtual reality program wirelessly. The data server received the data sent through the wireless connection and passed this through the .NET sockets to a Virtual Reality software system. The output from the Unity software was displayed in 3D on a four meter hemispherical dome screen using projectors. The visualization software was built around the Unity 3D game development tool and based around a 3D mine engineering eBook for an underground mining equipment system. This approach had the potential to provide a superior immersive learning environment enabling a user to interact with 3D objects and to learn in a hands-on way.

Mechanical and manafacturing engineering virtual labs

Mechanics of materials course

A virtual lab for use in a mechanics of materials course was designed for use at Cornell University for 120 students.26 The lab involved analyzing the canned data provided to calculate yield and fracture strengths, shear moduli and to work out the relationships between stiffness, strength and dimensions of the test samples. The lab on the web comprised three sections: Tutorials on the technology and science, videos of actual tests with live plotting of twist-torque data and a lab manual with exercises and questions. Unfortunately, in practice, the students only used the hints on graphing and a few used the online test of one’s knowledge.

The results of the lab survey (after the course) were somewhat discouraging with the overwhelming majority of the students (68%) still preferring physical labs as compared to this virtual lab. The main reasons stated were in gaining hands-on experience, a focus on physical equipment as opposed to sole interaction with a computer, proximity and sight of experimental equipment and finally, perceived value for money with real equipment. The few students who did prefer the virtual labs cited ease of use, certainty of data, less human error, convenience and ability to focus on theory.

Advanced virtual manufacturing lab

Typical training applications constructed with great success in a virtual environment included:27

• Advanced Virtual manufacturing lab with computer numerical control models of a FADAL VMC 3016L 3-axis milling machine and a HAAS SL-20 turning machine. This allowed for execution of code written by the student for control of the cutting head and alteration of travel speed amongst other parameters.

• A virtual Welding Lab teaching the theory and practice of welding processes.

• A virtual Centrifugal Pump Lab instructing on the theory of selection, installation, commissioning and operation of a pump.

• A comparison of student outcomes for the virtual environment against that of a classroom-based course showed similar outcomes (although it was unclear whether the classroom included a real hands-on lab).

Game-based video game

It is estimated that over 97% of children between the ages of 12 and 17 play video games.28 A multiplayer online game called Aeroquests is a simulation of an aerospace firm where second-year engineering students take on roles as interns working in research and development of aircraft/rocket that a client needs delivered in a short time. Each student is part of a design team where they collaborate in different spaces (or rooms) to experiment with different configurations, conduct analyses with the design room in particular containing a comprehensive range of materials such as videos, charts and other documents. Students indicated that they could use distance education for the team-based design activities.

Gear design through massively multiplayer online games

Students today prefer learning that is computer-based, has connectivity with their peers, is immediate and has social attributes.29 They aren’t prepared to slump in a lecture passively listening, but want hands-on learning experiences. This is where games playing with massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) can proffer the opportunity for a learning experience.

The Stevens Institute of Technology built an interactive mechanical gears game lab-based on Source, a game engine to provide a virtual lab for their Machine Dynamics and Mechanisms course. This introduced the concepts of kinematics, dynamics as well as cam systems, gear trains, couplings, belt and chain drives. Students could thus perform many experiments relating to gears in a virtual environment. The students and instructors were represented as and interact with each other as avatars. A number of typical real problems (or scenarios) were created which exercised the students’ problem-solving skills while working in teams. In using a pre-experiment and post experiment tests, the learning was gauged with a definite improvement in their knowledge. The majority of students were satisfied with the experience.

Perceptions of reality in the experimentation are vital

A comparison was made between the three lab modes of proximal (i.e. “physical hands-on”), simulation and remote for the calibration of a piezoelectric accelerometer for a third year mechanical engineering unit.30 From an access point of view, the lab was provided through the spectrum analyzer which was remotely controlled. The simulation of the lab was done through a MATLAB graphical user interface simulation of the spectrum analyzer. Some observations were that in the learning objectives that students perceived lab hardware not as important for the simulation whereas in the remote mode there was a lower perception of the link between theory and practice. As the constructivist paradigm suggests, the students create meaning by absorbing new information and layering it on their existing knowledge. If the new knowledge is biased in a different context (remote/proximal and simulation modes), their learning will surely be different.

Three-dimensional tensile testing virtual lab

At Armstrong Atlantic State University, a tensile testing virtual lab based on interactive 3D virtual equipment was set up.31 The key benefits of a web-based lab are considered to be the lower cost, limited space requirements (essentially only a PC) and easier implementation than a traditional lab. This lab formed part of a planned series of virtual labs (called Virtual Interactive Engineering on the web or VIEW) all within a web-based 3D environment.

The first lab constructed was a virtual tensile testing lab (VTTL) created as part of the Introduction to Engineering Materials course taken by 192 students (in 2008) majoring in civil, mechanical and electrical and computer engineering (as a core course for the mechanical students). Introduction to Engineering materials is a lecture-based course, covering the fundamentals of materials processing, materials structure, materials properties, testing and materials performance. The objective of the virtual lab was to expose students to the testing techniques required to assess the mechanical properties such as elastic modulus, yield strength, ductility and toughness. The lab was built around three core elements: the Extensible 3D (X3D) standard which defines and communicates real-time interactive 3D content, PHP which is the web scripting language for creating web pagesand, finally, JavaScript which provides the interaction between the elements of the graphical user interface. Solidworks was used to create the 3D models of the tensile testing machine, as well as the five sample specimens (such as aluminum, polycarbonate).

Before taking the lab, the students had to attend the lecture tutorial, then an online quiz based on the course material before accessing the VTTL. The students had to perform five lab virtual experiments to test the materials under tensile loads and to obtain stress and strain data. The data were then analyzed using MATLAB and compared with typical values obtained from an online database (MatWeb). The survey results of the students indicated a high degree of satisfaction and a significant improvement in grades in this particular question in an exam.

Thermo-fluids virtual labs

Web-based labs are useful for students to give them practice before engaging in real lab experiments. Another advantage for instructors is to provide live demonstrations with a virtual lab during a lecture to illustrate a particular concept more thoroughly. The College of Engineering and Technology at Old Dominion University created virtual labs based on two physical experiments from the thermo-fluids laboratory course.3233

The lab discussed was a venturimeter used as a flow measuring device. This lab demonstrates two important concepts in fluid mechanics: drag coefficient and the momentum integral equation applied to determination of forces acting on a body submerged in a moving fluid.

The underlying physical phenomenon was reproduced virtually using the fluid dynamics code (called Fluent) coupled with Flash to create an animation. The experiment allows for the manipulation of a valve to change the flow rate and to perform the venturimeter experiment interactively on the computer screen. The water heights in piezometer tubes can be read directly off the screen.

The experiment involved the measurement of flow rate and pressure drop from the maximum to minimum cross-section of the venturimeter. The experiment is initiated by clicking the valve to the selected open position and switching the pump on. The pressure readings in the piezometer tubes connected to the inlet and the throat sections of the venturimeter are recorded for the selected flow rate. The flowrate and pressure drop data is used to calculate the coefficient of the venturimeter and the Reynolds number. On-campus students can use this virtual experiment to prepare for the physical experiment. LabVIEW was used to do the data analysis.

Three virtual probes were developed. These included an e-pitot for velocity measurement, an e-manometer for pressure measurement and an e-differential pressure transducer for differential pressure. These could be moved around the virtual rig by clicking and dragging with a mouse. A further refinement to the experiment was an e-box where students were able to move and mount test objects as well as virtual probes.

Introductory thermodynamics animated course

In undertaking most thermodynamics courses, the instructor normally assigns a set of homework problems where the student is required to solve for a specific parameter such as temperature, pressure, volume, heat transfer, work or efficiency.34 The dynamic nature of most thermodynamic processes as they change from one state to another is probably lost in the traditional classroom and computer animations (as with this package discussed here entitled WileyPLUS Thermodynamics) are probably a great way of addressing this.

Suggested requirements for successfully putting together animations include:

• Simplicity is the key for the student, with no installation of software required or programming necessary.

• Animations should be able to run on any computer; Adobe Flash Player is widely installed and is thus used.

• Software controls are extremely easy to use, with controls being similar to that of a DVD player.

• Cost and time of development is kept to a minimum using those in the associated textbook.

• Each animation helps for an overall appreciation of the engineering concept and is tied to a homework problem. The instructor is still required to grade the homework.

Each problem page for this package on Thermodynamics was divided into three sections: the top displaying the problem, the middle the steps required of the student to undertake the animation and the bottom the actual visual animation.

The approach that is followed is for some of the input variables to be h and calculated by the student and entered into the input section. The Output values are then calculated by hand and then the animation is run for the student to confirm her calculations. The deliverable to the instructor are the web page printout with the supporting calculations.

Simulation-based engineering training system

A simulation-based software package for the US Navy Submarine Learning Center was designed to enhance sailors’ skills in maintenance, troubleshooting and operation of equipment as well as to help them underst and the engineering principles behind the operation of equipment.35 For example, a Steam Power Plant Simulator allowed a student to simulate the operations in the steam power plant. The graphical interfaces are highly realistic and provide an inside view of the process. Choices can be made in the simulations to arrive at different outcomes. For example, changing the valve position can alter the mass-flow rate through a nozzle to the turbine with a resultant change in the power output.

The simulations and animations are supplemented with quizzes, questions and virtual experiments. As an on-site instructor is not always available to help with queries, a problem solving tutor is online.

Mainly videos but called virtual lab

The department of mechanical engineering at Texas Tech University detailed a method of improving the effectiveness of the laboratory experience for students.36 They noted that one of the challenges engineering students have with labs is the lack of familiarity with the specific equipment and procedures for the experiments. If this problem can be dealt with effectively, there will be less frustration for both students and indeed instructors, the lab will be used more effectively and the overall quality of the experience can be improved. An interactive software tool based on Flash was developed to help with the Hardness Experiment (part of the Materials and Mechanics Laboratory course), where students use a Rockwell Hardness tester to determine the hardness of various known metals. In this web tool, video clips, images and text materials were used to define hardness, its relevance to materials selection and its usage and application. A detailed explanation was also provided of how the key piece of lab equipment, a Rockwell hardness tester, was used during the experiment. It was found that students who were exposed to this tool up to 10 days before commencing the lab achieved a 20% higher grade in the pre-lab test.

Handling instrument experimental error in virtual flow lab37

Experimental error is often neglected in virtual labs, as it is difficult to create what appear to be real errors with simulation software. In this virtual lab (part of the Mechanical Engineering Thermo-Fluids Lab at Old Dominion University), the student adjusted flow rates in a pipe with a control valve and measured the flow rate and pressure drop with different instruments. Each instrument had different measurement uncertainties and the student was required to find the optimum instrument. The virtual lab module had five main sections comprising objectives, uncertainty and error analysis, example, the virtual experiment and selection of instruments. The important issue of the trade-off between cost of the instrument and its accuracy was part of the lab. Student learning was compared in a two-hour multiple choice test at the conclusion of the course and it demonstrated that students who engaged in the virtual lab performed significantly better (than those who didn’t participate).

Machine dynamics virtual experiment with virtual reality

A virtual lab to demonstrate the principles of machine dynamics was constructed at the Stevens Institute of Technology to emulate an industrial plant and could be applied to analyze different inertia values, gear ratios, torques and friction.38 The virtual lab was based on a conventional lab comprising a drive motor, coupled via a timing belt to a drive disk. An additional timing belt connected the drive disk to a speed reduction apparatus. A third belt connected the drive train to a load disk. The experiment allowed for changing the inertia properties of the load and drive disks by modifying the number of masses; adjusting the speed reduction ratio by changing size of pulleys and adjusting the level of backlash. Finally, the level of vibration could be analyzed.

Although consideration was given to using this conventional lab extensively as a remote lab, the main shortcoming was that the lab apparatus had to be pre-configured for each experiment (e.g. modifying the number of masses, pulleys, gears and belts). Virtual labs could eliminate most of these types of problems and provide students with the same level of understanding.

The dynamic mechanical models for the virtual lab were programmed using Jython to write the Java applet. Jython is an implementation of the Python programming language.

The Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML) was used to generate and display the 3D image of the experiment. It is vital to ensure the experiment appears to be as realistic as possible. Many of the current virtual experiments are two dimensional or use schematics to represent the experiment. Thus considerable effort was put into providing the same level of realism as with a real lab environment.

The GUI of the emulator system had two main components: The left part of the screen allowed input of commands for selection of the plant model, changing masses, idler pulleys, while the right part of the screen displayed a rendering of the simulation model. The student could rotate the view of the equipment and zoom in on parts of interest. Data from the simulation could be downloaded for analysis using Excel, for example. The results from the simulation and the real equipment experiment were very similar. In conclusion, it was noted that students were totally immersed in the experiment and felt like they were performing a real world experiment.

Robotics simulations

Robotics hardware within a lab environment can be expensive.39 An equivalent simulation package called Robolab 2 has been designed at the University of Alicante, using Java and Java 3D, and allows one to create new robot models. The student requires an internet connection, a web client program and the Java and Java 3D runtime libraries. A force-feedback joystick is the optimum way of transferring the robot arm’s sense of touch to the human operator. Robolab was used in different experiments such as studying the components of different robots, introducing the coordinate systems and homogeneous transformations and direct and inverse kinematics. The approach was for the student to first use the simulation to experiment, and then after confirming the results were correct, to execute on the real robotic system. A minority of students (30 to 40%) followed this routine, but the remainder preferred the real lab and to work in collaboration with their fellow students and obtain support from the instructor.

Biological virtual labs

Virtual biology labs

A comparison was made between face-to-face and virtual labs of two online introductory biology courses.40 12 lab sessions were face-to-face involving reading text, viewing and commenting on images or organs and body systems and wet labs involving chemical digestion, urinalysis, fetal pig dissection and microscope use. A further 10 virtual lab sessions were CD-ROM-based with “pointing and clicking” on topics such as osmosis and diffusion (requiring one to virtually mix blood and water and assess quantitative data), frog muscles and pulmonary functions. Students perceived the face-to-face labs as considerably more effective with positive comments about the positive interaction between their peers and the instructors. There was very little interaction and questions generated by students completing the virtual labs. A suggestion was to actively use web conferencing and collaborative tools such as discussion boards to increase the level of interaction to ameliorate this problem. However, students did confirm that virtual labs were helpful in their learning.

Chemistry and biology simulated labs

Simulations that are useful for chemistry are Woodfields Virtual ChemLab focusing on general chemistry and organic chemistry courses.41 Another source of lab simulations for both chemistry and biology is Late Nite Labs ( A complete list of labs is contained in the reference above.


9.4 Variations of standard virtual labs

Fully automated Virtual Physics Lab (VPL) using text-to-speech

This virtual lab uses text-to-speech technology (to convert the text into speech) with numerous interactive experiments such as for motion and optics.42 A mixture of 2D and 3D animations are used. The use of text-to-speech ensures that any changes to the course can simply be adjusted by changing the text without having to re-record the audio for the occasional changes that are made to the course. Automated assessments allow for an unlimited number of attempts by students without overloading the instructor with unlimited grading and ensuring that the student is proficient before moving to the next module.

Second life virtual worlds for machine dynamics and mechanisms

There has been solid growth in the use of three dimensional (3D) virtual worlds for educational purposes.43 This is perceived as considerably more interesting and enjoyable for students than reading a textbook (especially as many of them have been committed console and computer game players). Second Life is one of the most popular non-game 3D multi-user virtual environments where one can meet others and collaborate and interact with them. Communication is achieved by text or voice-based chat and avatar gestures. Free client programs for viewers or the Hippo OpenSimulator allows users to interact with each other through avatars. A pilot classroom was created at the Stevens Institute of Technology with various labs, the first one comprising modelling of inertia, friction, backlash and stiffness and the second one focusing on vibration and the third one being a four-bar linkage experiment.

However, the limitations of Second Life made realistic virtual experiments quite weak due to poor graphical support (e.g. lack of a surface mesh). Physics simulations within Second Life are run using the well known Havok physics engine, but this particular version of Havok is optimized for multi-user internet access and has inevitable limitations. Thus at this stage of the game (if you’ll pardon the pun), Second Life is probably best suited to collaborative role playing in project-based assignments.

Not quite simulation: interactive multimedia

When undertaking industrial, mechanical engineering and allied vocational subjects, there is a need to cover both the theoretical and practical fundamentals. Currently, due to the increasing costs of process laboratory equipment, a lower number of lab sessions are being undertaken and more emphasis is being placed on the passive lecturing approach to the detriment of the overall student learning experience. A software simulation of an industrial park has been created with five major components (or companies), a machine shop, a welding shop, a material lab, a sheet metal shop and a foundry-forging company.44 The concept is that the student can then drill down to investigate each company in more detail progressing from the machine shop with information on drilling, milling or turning to material on the individual items of equipment and products. Where possible videos were incorporated into the explanations. The benefits of this approach are that it allows more students active hands-on experiences and the industrial tour can be undertaken anywhere (and on the web).

Combination of remote labs and simulations

An online industrial networking course at Drexel University providing an in-depth examination of wired and wireless networks such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, DNP3 and CAN required hands-on experience.45 This was accomplished using OPNET’s IT Guru and Wireshark. OPNET is a graphical network traffic simulator and allows components such as routers, hosts and servers to be dragged from various menus and connected together and allows such metrics as throughput and delay to be examined. Wireshark is an open source protocol analyzer for network troubleshooting and analysis.


9.5 Key elements of successful virtual labs

When creating an interactive 3D virtual course environment comprising graphics, movies, animations, interactive simulations and virtual reality models with each module followed by a quiz to test knowledge acquired, consider these points:46

• Avoid overloading any scene with too many graphics and match to the environment required (rotating / manipulated / opened / closed objects should be 3D whereas graphs should be 2D).

• Avoid using the virtual environment to navigate from one room to another. This simply makes things more confusing.

Key characteristics of simulations that work

The key characteristics of simulations that work in improving student’s level of achievement include:47

• An interactive environment that engages students.

• Immediate feedback to students.

• Constructivist approach allowing for building new knowledge on an existing base.

• An environment that encourages further playing and development.

• Visualization of the often abstract physical models (e.g. an electromagnetic wave).

• Focusing students on the concepts at h and rather than extraneous and distracting concepts.

In a research study, which compared student performance as a result of using simulations against that of physical labs, superior outcomes were demonstrated for simulations if the instructor concurrently provided clarification and support on the concepts being demonstrated. If the instructor does not mediate, it is possible that the simulation may result in even worse results than for a physical experiment. It may be that the graphical user interface is difficult to understand and a supportive explanation from the instructor brings everything into context for the student. However, a wise remark made in this research was that an optimum learning experience for the student would result if a blended approach of simulations combined with traditional labs were undertaken.

Further research undertaken echoes earlier commentary that improved performance (e.g. on-the-job skills, for example) can result from use of learning simulations if adequate guidance and feedback is quickly provided to the learner.48 This doesn’t necessarily need to be a live tutor. Different forms of guidance and feedback could include:

• Text-based–when a student struggles with a particular part of the simulation.

• Visual–showing the location of a key element.

• Video stories and advice clips, but these are more difficult to be meaningful for technical topics.

• Demonstration of the consequences of a particular action in the simulation.

•  Summary of the results of the simulation which provide some definition of the learner’s abilities (‘categorization’) and make recommendations for improving one’s skills (‘prescription’).

Key points and applications

Chapter 9

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Virtual Laboratories.

1.  Meaningful learning will only occur if it is authentic. Some suggestions for creating authentic tasks include:

• Relate directly to the real world.

• Require further definition from the student to define further what work is required.

• Work in days and months rather than minutes.

• Include a multitude of perspectives.

• Make collaboration and reflection indispensable components.

2.  Key characteristics of simulations that work include:

• Interactive environment that engages students.

• Immediate feedback to students.

• Constructivist environment allowing building of new knowledge.

• Further investigation (and “playing”).

• Visualization of abstract concepts.

• An unwavering focus on the key concepts rather than extraneous clutter.

3.  Typical Virtual Labs included:

• Radio-pharmacy where learners were represented by avatars.

• Water resources engineering demonstrating Bernouilli’s principle.

• Electric Power System protection simulation of a complete power system.

• Foundations of logical design with full simulations of industry-specific integrated circuits.

• Simulation of electronic circuits using the Electronic Laboratory Simulator.

South African Management Team

Cheryl Reyneke Apolonia Chitongo

Student Stories

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How can an e-learning course be interactive?

Boredom can be a real danger, however, we use an interactive approach to our e-Learning – with live sessions instead of recordings.  The webinar software allows everyone to interact and involves participants in group work; including hands-on exercises with simulation software and remote laboratories where possible.  You can communicate with text messages, or live VoIP speech, or can even draw on the whiteboard during the sessions.


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