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Brainiac

Introducing the remote science lab

And more recent highlights from the Ideas blog

The biggest wave in higher education lately has been MOOCs—the massive open online courses that enroll hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world. For all their popularity, their limitations are also plain: They’re impersonal and are better at imparting technical knowledge than replicating hands-on classroom learning.

One particularly clear example is the laboratory work at the heart of science. If hundreds of thousands of people sign up for a chemistry MOOC, you can broadcast lectures and grade their tests, but how do you give them access to the beakers and test tubes that students would be using on campus?

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An electrical engineering professor at Stanford University may have at least a partial solution. As a recent news article on the university’s website explained, Lambertus Hesselink has created what he calls an “iLab”—basically a digitized version of a lab experiment that approximates the feel of the real thing.

Previously, Hesselink developed technology that allowed students to control real, physical lab equipment through the Internet—which worked remotely, but didn’t easily scale up. Now he has “digitized” a lab experiment in a way that lets any number of students try it on their own. It’s a simple light-diffraction experiment inside a box, involving two lasers, a diffraction grating, and several lenses. Hesselink used a specialized camera to take pictures of the experiment in every one of its possible configurations; MOOC students who log in can adjust the laser intensity or change the position of the diffraction grating, and instead of seeing real equipment move, they see a new prerecorded image appear on their computer screens. It’s something like a “choose your own adventure” version of a lab experiment.

Hesselink has applied this process to even more complex experiments, too, suggesting there’s a lot of room yet to make MOOCs more hands-on. On the other hand, some aspects of lab life will probably never reach MOOC scale: It will be much harder to digitize the thousands of possible ways a graduate student could correct your lab work, like patiently informing you that you’ve left the switch off.

The glory of seed pods

Anna Laurent

Last June I wrote about photographer Sabine Pearlman, who takes stunning cross-sectional photographs of ammunition casings: Images that are powerful because they provide a precise, even beautiful perspective on objects that are used to create such destruction.

So what, you might be wondering, is the opposite of an ammunition casing? It might be a seedpod. Photographer Anna Laurent, whose work is featured in the current issue of Harvard Magazine, takes close-up portraits of the many different kinds of structures that plants use to protect and disperse the next generation of life. Laurent, a native of Jamaica Plain living in Los Angeles, has an exhibition called Dispersal running at the Arnold Arboretum. It sounds very benign, but there’s also something vaguely intimidating about the sheer array of delivery mechanisms plants have at their disposal, from the wispy seeds of the empress tree to the thick folds of the Hawaiian wood rose. Good luck trying to stop it all.

Dispersal runs at the Arnold Arboretum through Jan. 26.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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