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Learning to use complex lab equipment, virtually

March 5, 2014
By
Becky Bach

Stanford professor Tiziana Vanorio is using a seed grant to launch online lessons that could dramatically shorten the learning curve for complicated lab instruments.

A new online course funded by VPOL and the School of Earth Sciences teaches students how to use complicated geophysics lab equipment such as a porosimeter, pictured here, safely.

A new series of computer tutorials aims to boost Stanford students’ understanding of basic concepts in rock physics and teach them safe lab practices by training them on virtual copies of complex scientific instruments.

The tutorials are the brainchild of Tiziana Vanorio, an assistant professor in the Department of Geophysics, and are being funded by a recent grant from the Vice Provost for Online Learning (VPOL) and the School of Earth Sciences.

“We don’t want to replace the lab,” Vanorio said. “We just want to make the learning experience faster so the undergraduates can feel more confident and the graduate students are able to focus on their research sooner.”

Vanorio is an expert in using lab techniques to model the mechanical and chemical, or “chemo-mechanical,” changes that rocks in the Earth’s interior undergo when exposed to fluids and gases under pressure. She grew up studying Greek and Latin, but in 1983, a series of small earthquakes–most were below magnitude 4–shook her hometown of Pozzuoli, Italy, a coastal city on the outskirts of Naples.

The ground beneath the town also rose more than a meter in a year due to pressure exerted by a magma chamber or hydrothermal reservoirs; nearly 40,000 families were evacuated, some for several years. At first, the episode was nothing more than a welcome break for school for the young Vanorio. But the evacuation exerted an emotional toll on the community and she decided to learn as much as possible about what caused the phenomena, which had been known about since at least Roman times.

After completing her degrees in geophysics and volcanology, Vanorio accepted a position at the University of Nice in France. The idea of a virtual lab first occurred to Vanorio after a frustrating experience there, where she was asked to teach experimental techniques and protocols without access to any real instruments.

Even after Vanorio arrived at Stanford and set up a state-of-the-art rock physics laboratory, she still faced challenges teaching undergraduate geophysics.  She found she spent large chunks of each class explaining the equipment, leaving students with little time to complete their independent research projects. Students also needed the skills to keep both themselves—and the costly equipment—safe. And they needed to learn quickly; it was tough to crunch all of the material into a single quarter of 11 weeks, Vanorio said. Even graduate students struggled to master the complicated instruments, which have grown increasingly complex due to technological advances.

For now, the virtual lab consists of one instrument, known as a porosimeter. Geophysicists use this instrument to inject helium into rocks in order to determine what fraction of their volume is composed of pores. A series of animated tutorials explain the different components of the porosimeter and demonstrate how it works. Animation more accurately captures the experiments and equipment than video, Vanorio said, because “most of the action occurs inside rocks.”

Vanorio said one goal of creating the animated videos was to help students learn at a comfortable pace and serve as a reference guide during their lab classes.  Based on student feedback thus far, the tutorials seem to be working. “After watching it I knew exactly what to do and I felt really comfortable doing the experiment [in the lab],” said Guenther Glatz, a PhD candidate in the Energy Resources Engineering Department.  “I especially appreciated the similarity between the rendering and the actual setup. I recognized all the components when we were standing in front of the actual setup.”

Salma Alsinan, a graduate student in the Geophysics Department, said that “not being a native English speaker, this tool helped me to understand things at my own pace.”

Vanorio said she plans to expand her virtual lab to include four or five critical geophysical instruments, including those that measure rock permeability, elastic wave velocity and electrical conductivity. Because the machines are expensive and often take up significant amounts of space, Stanford only has one of most of them. As a result, researchers must schedule their time in the lab, thus online learning allows them to use their lab time on their actual experiments.

Future versions of the animations will be interactive, so that students can observe the effects of manipulating different variables such as temperature and pressure. Students will also be able to take apart the machines digitally to analyze how they work, a step that Vanorio thinks will improve comprehension of key physical concepts. “As much as possible, we want to make it engaging and real,” Vanorio said.

Greg Beroza, Wayne Loel Professor of Geophysics at Stanford and an early supporter of Vanorio’s project, said the online tutorials could help solve a difficult problem, namely “how to get students up to speed operating laboratory instruments when there is limited time and availability of those instruments for experiments.”

Vanorio said she wants to make her virtual tools available online for students at other institutions that do not have access to the high-caliber tools available at Stanford.

“It’s a way to open Stanford labs to the world outside,” Vanorio said. “The tools we are creating offer the opportunity to have the first stages of experimental training done with virtual copies of expensive and high-demand equipment.”

Ker Than contributed to this story.