Undergraduate science labs were once pretty predictable—pulleys and circuits, rocks and minerals, titrations and unknowns, bacterial brews and pickled piglets. But today’s science lab student, in one short session, can breed a litter of kittens, trace the trajectory of a fall on Venus, predict the timing and force of an earthquake or a volcano, “experience” a car crash or being born, or, in the rather unscientific prose of one catalog, “empathize with the hopeless struggle of an ant caught in the glue of a sundew.” All courtesy of interactive video simulations, of course.

Such tools, widely recognized by scientists working in industry and academia as a means of investigating phenomena that are too expensive, time-consuming, or otherwise unreasonable to examine in actuality, are now increasingly being used by teachers of undergraduate science courses as well. Computer simulations undoubtedly have expanded the repertoire of the science lab, but do they preserve...

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