Domestic, Feature, For-Profit, High school / Secondary 2, Publishers, Required, Startups, STEM / Science, Technology, Education, Math, Technology, University & College - Written by Elbert Chu on Wednesday, January 4, 2012 9:33 - 0 Comments
How a STEM Startup’s Virtual Labs Help Students Find Their Inner Mad Scientist
Late Nite Labs provides interactive chemistry and biology labs online for budding mad scientists in high school and college. Originally based in New Jersey, the startup moved to new digs in New York City recently. Late Nite Labs is prepared to expand their own 10 person lab staff with new funding.
What is it?
The labs are plain fun. Students can mix whatever they want in any quantities they like. What happens when you add nine milliliters of yeast to 15 milliliters of glucose with a few grams of lead in a beaker and put the mixture in a dry ice bath? Not much. But that’s kind of the point too. These labs allow students to explore and make mistakes. Underlying algorithms and equations just crunch the numbers, and results appear in the data just like they would in the lab— right or wrong. Online lab manuals provide step-by-step instructions when students are ready to get their assignment completed.
“It’s immersive, like a first person shooter game,” said Harris Goodman, chief development officer for Late Nite Labs. But instead of machine guns, students are armed with beakers and test tubes. One chem lab for college students figures out the alcohol content in vodka. How’s that for grabbing the attention of hungover students?
Good Economics for Schools, Better for Students?
We like this idea for student STEM engagement and particularly on the school admin side. Virtual labs are an economical replacement to reduce costs like glassware, instruments and space for chem and bio labs— not to mention insurance, lab certifications and safety issues. It also helps that Late Nite Labs is free for schools and professors to use.
Goodman said getting schools to fit new products into their already thin yearly budgets was onerous. Instead, students foot the $50 per class per semester bill for Late Nite Labs. Compare that to $20-50 per lab manual per class, plus $80-200 for equipment and materials labs fees.
For students— no more goggle rings around the eyes, clean up or nasty chemical burns. In Late Nite Labs, students just drag their mess of glass and instruments into a yellow “biohazard” bin and— poof, clean up is done. Plus, the lab is accessible anywhere in the world with an internet connection, at any hour. There’s also 24/7 support for students and teachers— with real live technically trained people from West Chester, NY.
Lost in Virtualization?
Still, we wonder if playing with chemistry and biology sets online misses some of tactile joy in what fascinates young scientists. Will young scientists miss their calling if they don’t experience the clinks of glass, the heat of Bunsen burners, squeezing the pipette just right or the acrid aroma of acid?
Goodman easily acknowledges their shortcomings.
“We can’t teach a student exactly how to hold and squeeze a pipette and there’s a lot of chemical reactions that cause smells. This would be hard for someone who wants to make cologne or perfume,” said Goodman.
Good for Learning?
Smell and touch may be lost in virtualization, but what won’t get lost is the critical thinking about the world with scientific experiments. Goodman says hundreds of professors from 150 universities, colleges and high schools are using their labs. Schools include Arizona State, Penn State and Iowa State among others. That translates to 20,000 students who have gone through virtual labs.
Another benefit will be wider exposure for students to STEM who might not otherwise experience a wet lab because of cost or space constraints.
Late Nite Labs’ ambitious goal is to be a STEM platform that scales and is customizable.
Professors can provide entire assignments, grade, communicate and analyze student performance through its own LMS back bone.
Late Nite Labs provides 600 different chemicals and materials, from orange juice and hydrochloric acid to e.coli and staphylococcus. Professors can use these to build custom labs and curriculum for students.
“We give professors the ability to build a real platform to generate their own curriculum,” said Goodman. Professors report better performance by students who used Late Nite Labs.
Late Nite Labs started in 2006 and have been growing low-key through friends and family support. Labs told TechCrunch they recently raised a $1.1 million seed round from angel investors:
Harold Levy, the former Chancellor of New York City’s public school system and EVP of Kaplan, as well as Don Burton, former head of Business Development for Disney Education.
They plan to get into high schools, but the barrier to entry is much higher than colleges where any professor can use whatever he wants.
“The textbook industry is much more convulted in the high schools, you need a huge salesforce to dominate. There are state by state adoption requirements. It’s very confusing and requires custom probing,” said Goodman.
In the next week, Goodman tells us the team will be rolling-out a new upgraded chemistry lab. And Late Nite Labs is working on bringing students inside forensics labs CSI-style and outside the lab— to study ecology of fish populations in lakes. They will also roll-out video embedding for online lab manuals from YouTube or professor generated content.
What Goodman’s really excited about is the idea of collaboration.
Goodman said, “Web 2.0 is all about social interaction. What would it be like to have a digital lab partner online? Collaboration and working together in lab from anywhere.”
visit: Late Nite Labs, but be warned, its kind of addictive— in a good way, the way science should be.
What do you think of virtual labs? Let us know in the comments.
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