Today’s graduates face workplace expectations that were unfamiliar a generation ago. They must simultaneously assimilate higher-order thinking, demonstrate soft skills, and have a knack for creativity. And they must make a seamless leap from pupil to practitioner.

Professor Milo Koretsky in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering is well aware of the challenges facing would-be graduates in his field. His engineering education research in virtual learning systems is helping students better prepare themselves to transition to professional practice.

Virtual learning systems use simulated laboratory environments and computer-aided technology to encourage student inquiry. The most developed of Koretsky’s projects, called the Virtual Chemical Vapor Deposition Laboratory, lets students practice complex tasks common to professional engineers in the microelectronics industry, in much the same way a flight simulator trains pilots.

“This learning system isn’t just a virtual version of what students do in the physical lab at the university; it’s a virtual version of what they will do in practice. Essentially, we’re just providing a richer variety of simulations of practice,” said Koretsky.

The lab’s genesis can be traced to Koretsky’s own beginning as a learning researcher. He came to Oregon State after earning his doctorate at Berkeley and applying his technical skills to microelectronics and thin film processing research. Gradually, he transitioned from measuring ions and electrons in a plasma to measuring student responses in a learning system. As it turns out, the latter is equally complex.

Several years ago, an Honors College student working with Koretsky developed a crude HTML version of his virtual learning lab for his elective class. Over time, and with upgrades from student programmers, it became a three-dimensional interface that is now integrated into the school’s capstone lab course. Students can make reactor runs, take measurements of their own specifications, get output data, and determine the cost of their experiments, all while interacting with a team of their peers.

Some might be tempted to peg virtual-aided learning as an abstracted form of education that will eliminate human interaction. But Koretsky insists this is not his intent. He explains that it’s difficult to replicate real-world experiments in a university laboratory, on account of the equipment’s cost and complexity, among other constraints. While physical labs offer tremendous value, virtual learning systems remove some of these constraints. And by exploring additional inputs and outputs during reactor runs, students develop a broader set of knowledge and skills.

“In a sense the virtual lab is like having a trainer at the gym, someone who says, ‘no you don’t want to just bench press all the time. That one exercise is not going to make you an athlete,’” he said.

Debra Gilbuena, the senior PhD candidate in Koretsky’s research group, sees value in virtual learning. As part of her own research, she observes the virtual lab project and analyzes feedback between instructors, who pose as coaches and managers, and students, who pose as process engineers. She has identified several topic-centered mini-discussions within the student-instructor interactions, which she calls episodes. Analyzing these episodes has allowed her to create a framework for understanding patterns of cognitive skills and instruction.

She thinks this episode framework could be applied to other learning environments. “The framework is useful for both discourse analysis on feedback as well as faculty development on ways to provide facilitative feedback,” she said.

Gilbuena has also been looking at the development of virtual labs and their proliferation in other institutions. To date, 18 other institutions have incorporated either Koretsky’s Virtual Chemical Vapor Deposition Laboratory or its cousin, the Virtual BioReactor Laboratory, into their curriculum.

Koretsky and Gilbuena see endless potential to virtual learning systems. For example, understanding episodes between different student teams and instructors is fertile ground for learning researchers, and integrating labs into high school curricula could be a career of its own.

"I think it's a pretty exciting time at Oregon State. There are researchers from science and math education, physics, math and elsewhere collaborating to establish the Center for Research on Lifelong STEM Learning,” said Koretsky. “And there is the ESTEME cluster within the Center, which seeks to transform education in ways that enable our students to better become tomorrow's successful STEM professionals and informed community members. It will be fascinating to see where this will go."

To learn more about Milo Koretsky’s other projects, visit: http://cbee.oregonstate.edu/education/