Invited Symposium: Virtual Labs and Real Scientists: Can Virtual Labs Produce Real Scientists?


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Can Virtual Labs Produce Real Scientists?

Contact Person: ian hughes (i.e.hughes@leeds.ac.uk)


What is a scientist? One definition would be an individual with the appropriate knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes which enable that individual to "do science". For a particular scientific discipline the knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes required may be different from those in a different discipline through there may be some common elements. For example, an ability to gather and record data accurately and to interpret and analyse data are requirements of a scientist in all disciplines though the tools used and the analysis and interpretation required will be different.

All the knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes required in a scientist are not however acquired in a short period of education or training. They are possibly partly inherited (curiosity for example), acquired (integrity) or learned at various ages (speech, simple maths, use of electronic tools, discipline specific knowledge at various levels). This process takes place from birth and since we all live in a real world all scientists will be the product of a real environment. Laboratories, real or virtual, only develop some of the knowledge, skills attitudes and attributes required by a scientist.

Within the context of university education however the more relevant question is - can a virtual laboratory develop in an individual the same knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes as can be developed in a real laboratory? It is therefore instructive to consider what knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes are actually developed in scientists in a laboratory context.

It is tempting to think of laboratories as places where laboratory skills are developed but a few moments thought can produce a long list of very diverse items which are learned or developed in a laboratory context. Knowledge discovered by experiment, knowledge and experience of the scientific method. Skills such as cannulation of blood vessels, handling of animals, time management, task organisation, communication, group working. Attitudes of being prepared to put in the effort required to get it right, to set high standards and to be self-critical and open-minded.

Many of these can be learned or developed in a virtual laboratory. Knowledge discovered by experiment (using a simulation of an animal preparation for example). Experience of the scientific method similarly can be obtained on simulations. Attitudes and attributes such as determination and carefulness can be developed in virtual situations. Are there things which can ONLY be acquired or practised in a real laboratory? Skills in animal handling and in cannulation for example may be some of the few things where virtual laboratories may not succeed as well as real laboratories. I know of no virtual environment which can emulate the act of killing a live animal and so confront the scientist with the question of moral justification with the same intensity as happens in the real laboratory. Some students may believe they are capable of killing animals and be competent and confident technically having practised on sand-filled socks, already dead animals or plastic models. When the moment comes to kill a real animal however even the best prepared student may discover there is a difference between virtual and real.

Clumsiness is an attribute which is often only discovered in the real laboratory. Some students are innovative, creative and competent in virtual laboratories and a walking disaster area in a real laboratory. For some students it is only in the real pharmacology laboratory that they discover they cannot integrate all diverse thinking, observing, planning and doing activities which are required in real time in a successful in vivo experiment. Aptitude, or the lack of it, for some types of real laboratory work is not discovered in a virtual laboratory.

While there are therefore aspects of real laboratory work which cannot be emulated in a virtual laboratory are they essential for all scientists? All scientists do not necessarily have to kill animals nor do they have to work in demanding laboratory environments. Scientists are not a uniform product but have the granularity required to enable them to fill a variety of job roles which demand differing knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes. The virtual laboratory can therefore develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes required by scientists in some jobs but not in others. "Yer pays yer money and yer takes yer choice".


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Hughes, I.E.; (1998). Can Virtual Labs Produce Real Scientists?. Presented at INABIS '98 - 5th Internet World Congress on Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University, Canada, Dec 7-16th. Invited Symposium. Available at URL http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98/rangachariedu/hughes0179/index.html
© 1998 Author(s) Hold Copyright