Today, conveying information efficiently is still key to Curtis's successful application of Internet technology in the classroom and lab. His lab home page, dubbed "Wayne's World," gives students access to online discussion forums, lab and statistics manuals, instructions on how to FTP files, and much more. All site users can access the home pages and e-mail addresses of virtually anyone connected with the lab, past and present. Curtis notes proudly that the content guides students through everything from "getting started as an undergraduate through graduating as a Ph.D." "It's a really good resource," agrees student Tracey Hsiao, who works in Curtis's lab. "His schedule is really hectic," she adds, "so being able to access his online calendar helps students in the lab get in touch with him." Even more importantly, the Web sites facilitate teamwork and encourage development of communication skills.
The content of Curtis's Chemical Engineering 407W course Web site is geared to help students develop collaboration skills that they will need on the job. Student groups in the course are supposed to design their own lab experiments. Curtis engineered his site's content so that "I would provide a general objective, but not a 'cook book' procedure to follow," offering manuals, instructions, syllabi, and rationales for group constitution. In addition to allowing the groups to quickly communicate with Curtis and the TA's, the site also includes a class news bulletin board for each section. Electronic interaction, Curtis has noticed, facilitates group work in that it provides students with a "non-threatening" environment. This means they can better tackle the inevitable difficulties involved in group course work, such as disagreements between group members and fears about getting appropriate credit.
Working over the Web also enhances students' written communication skills. For instance, all students must e-mail Curtis the rationale for their experiments in advance. "To make it work right, you have to be very, very specific," even down to precisely labeling the files they send him. Otherwise, the professor grins, he might have 100 students in 30 different groups all sending him files called simply "Experiment #1." The high volume of file exchange, more than 3,000 per semester for one course, necessitates specificity.
The course Web pages are designed with students' future careers in mind, as well. Each lab assignment links users to equipment manufacturers' Web pages. "Manufacturers provide information that they could and should know," Curtis explains, like the differences between two types of pumps. Knowing this information becomes important to success in the course, because the type of equipment being used could alter the results of the experiment. In addition, Curtis emphasizes, knowing how to access and take manufacturer information into account is crucial to making a smooth transition from school to industry. Once they leave Penn State for "the real world," the professor points out, fledgling chemical engineers will need to be able to select and use everything from pumps to computer interfaces appropriately.
Finally, the 407W Web page carries on Curtis's original theme of efficiency. After student complaints that equipment schematics of items like distillation columns did not offer a realistic view of the actual mechanisms used in the lab, Curtis complemented the schematics with photographs. Users now discover that the equipment schematics on the course Web site are actually mapped to digital images. By pointing and clicking on the schematic image, a student preparing for a lab can access a photograph of the equipment and its control panels.
Like the 407W site, the lab home page, Wayne's World, offers collaboration advantages to those who work with Curtis conducting research on chemical production from plant tissue culture. Especially important to effective teamwork is the password protected discussion forum for weekly research updates. Everyone is able to access and comment on each other's work prior to the weekly lab meeting. Student researcher Sara Leister explains, "Sometimes you work with people at the same time in the same lab and you don't really know what they're doing, so it's interesting to read the updates to find out." In addition, the message format allows Curtis to respond to each researcher individually, but quickly, by pasting the update directly into e-mail and inserting his comments. An additional collaborative tool is the file server Curtis has established as "a common place" at which to store and access drafts of recent papers and reports.
This electronic collaboration, according to Curtis, "sets the
stage" for the success of the lab as a whole by encouraging concise,
accurate communication. Being required to update others on progress
regularly means that students get practice writing. At the same time,
knowing that so many others must be able to understand their
communications means that students are preparing
for future communication intensive careers. Curtis explains that
he views organized records of research progress as important not only to
the individual researcher, but also to others in the lab. If necessary,
co-workers should be able to track research activity. The
forum is one step toward developing the detailed writing style that makes research recoverable even when the person who did it has moved on.
While Curtis has not yet had the opportunity to try teaching a course to students at a remote location via the Web, he believes that running a "virtual lab" is a distinct possibility. For example, the site enables graduate students working in industry to maintain their connection to ongoing research projects while away from Penn State. "While they're there," he observes, "they still have a connection with the lab . . . and it's kind of amazing that it doesn't make that much difference" that they aren't there physically. More recently, the Web page became a recruiting mechanism when a student on co-op at a remote location was able to access Wayne's World, read about research possibilities, and contact Curtis by e-mail to arrange for a future independent study. Curtis says, "there's absolutely no question" that Wayne's World would allow researchers from different locations to collaborate successfully. In the near future, a visiting scholar from India may continue collaborating with Curtis via the Internet after she leaves the U.S.
Are there any disadvantages to working and learning in a
virtual environment? Curtis cautions that collaboration in a virtual lab
will work only if all parties are willing and able to navigate the Web
site, deposit and retrieve files from the server, and maintain e-mail
contact. "The limitation so far," he
explains, "is getting people who like to use it." The same reservation applies
to the electronic classroom. "Probably," he suggests, "the
most difficult thing about the Web is that it's not linear, but people
think linearly. They like to have a book
that they can flip from page to page to page, reading a couple, putting a marker in it to continue later." In fact, Curtis recalls, his students sometimes try to download and print out the entire Web page early in the course. To encourage continued Web use, he now limits access to some subdirectories until the appropriate time in the semester. He hopes that developing a better way of mapping site content will motivate users to read effectively!
In the long run, Curtis has seen the willingness to learn the necessary skills growing steadily among students and colleagues. When he first began requiring his students to interact with him and each other over the Internet, some of them didn't even know how to use their e-mail accounts. Today, Wayne's World is a "pretty active place" that has drawn, he estimates, more than 5,000 hits just in the past year. Meanwhile, Curtis continues to retool site content, has given a talk on technology in the classroom and entertains inquiries from other professors interested in finding out about site content and functionality.
Since Curtis is not teaching the unit operations laboratory course this semester, his site is not linked to the Chemical Engineering Department "Courses" Web page. To view it, you can access it by direct URL at http://gibbs.che.psu.edu/~che407. The Wayne's World URL is http://www.personal.psu.edu/faculty/w/r/wrc2/.