The Association for Science Education

Virtual Physics Laboratory

Title: The Virtual Physics Laboratory (VPL)Green tick - virtual physics laboratory
Resource type: 27 interactive physics simulations
Supplier: Virtual Science Ltd
Price: £399.00
Ages: A-Level (16 - 18 year-old students)
Link: www.virtual-science.co.uk 

The Virtual Physics Laboratory (VPL) from Virtual Science Ltd is a suite of 27 interactive physics simulations. This suite of virtual physics practical exercises allows the user to take ranges of measurements over a wide variety of simulated practicals, from Rutherford’s alpha scattering to measurements of Plank’s constant using LEDs. These are mostly at Advanced level for England and Wales (16 - 18 year-old students). Each simulation is set in a ‘laboratory’ that, through excellent graphics and attention to detail, makes the simulation more engaging. For example, in the Boyle’s Law laboratory, there are posters of Robert Boyle with quotations that help to set the scene. The screen resolution can be chosen to suit the monitor used for the simulation. The developer has plans to expand the suite and welcomes suggestions for new experiments. There are also Occulus Rift versions available for some investigations.

These simulations may be used in class to supplement practicals where the experimental results are poor, or to consolidate learning and to demonstrate "what should have happened".

The Association for Science Education strongly supports ‘hands-on, minds-on’ practical work and would not advocate the use of virtual practicals over hands-on practicals. However, there are other circumstances where this software is very useful indeed. For instance, these simulations may be used in class to supplement practicals where the experimental results are poor, or to consolidate learning and to demonstrate "what should have happened". The VPL could be used for revision of practical procedures, or by those for whom awarding body rules do not apply; examples would include home- and hospital-schooled students. There is also the potential for bringing virtual practicals into classrooms in developing countries where physical equipment is not available.

The VPL should be ordered through its developer, Rob Lucas, at virtual-science.co.uk, from where an evaluation copy of one practical can be requested. The VPL will run from the USB data stick supplied, but runs more quickly when transferred to the hard drive of the computer. Site licences can be requested and installation to a school network is straightforward. The full suite of 27 practicals (described as experiments) is available for £399, and schools can host the experiments on their website to provide home access for students for an additional £100. This is helpful for students, allowing them to perform preliminary investigation work prior to ‘hands-on’ investigation. The experiments are based on many years of research into on-screen physics experiments and that research can be viewed at http://virtual-science.co.uk/research.html. Other products, not covered in this evaluation, are available, including an immersive CSI training school simulation and a simulator to aid the teaching of Key Stage 3 computing.

When running the software (which does not require installation into a stand-alone machine), it makes sense to read the accompanying instructions first – this is a common theme with the VPL. It is really important to read the instructions for each practical in full before starting, as there are often subtle points that can be missed by just ‘jumping in’. For example, a good deal of time might be spent trying to swap the available gratings in the diffraction practical if you don’t read the instruction to switch off the laser first.

The software is well designed by an experienced physicist and, though mostly aimed at 16-18 year-old students (in the UK), some of it may be used with younger students.

Each practical has a set of specific instructions and these are used not just to navigate the virtual instruments, but also to conduct the experiments. The basic theory behind each one is included and these are often the same as the AQA required practical methods. That is not to say that this is an awarding organisation-specific resource, because it isn’t. If a slightly different method is required, then students can be directed appropriately. Staying with the diffraction grating practical, the measurements that can be taken are the distance of the grating from the screen, and the distances between various orders of bright laser spots on the screen. Given the number of lines per mm on the grating, these measurements can then be processed in different ways to those suggested, in order to find the wavelength of the laser light.

There are some exceptions to this rule; for example, the method of finding the extension of a wire in the Young’s Modulus practical is restricted by the practical setup. However, once the extension is found, the data can then be processed in the ‘usual’ way by finding the gradient of a stress: strain graph.

When taking results, students will transfer them to an Excel spreadsheet or written table and plot graphs themselves so that the manual skills involved with recording and processing data are preserved. It is interesting that some experiments where timing is involved require that the user has a physical stopwatch of some kind to time the virtual events.

There are some attempts to introduce techniques for reducing errors, for example getting the screen at 900 to an incident laser, and students can always take into account the instrumental uncertainties. However, there is no element of random uncertainty for students to consider - something that the virtual environment does not reproduce. Results are guaranteed within instrumental uncertainty, but this does reduce the authenticity of the experience somewhat.

The controls can take a little getting used to and one machine upon which the VPL was trialled did not have corresponding keys for the zoom features. That said, a solution was quickly found using a USB numeric key pad, and Virtual Science Ltd very quickly offered to send adapted software for the compact keyboard arrangement. It is again essential to read the instructions carefully in order to be able to navigate around the VPL and manipulate the instruments properly; however, once mastered, it is relatively simple to take sets of readings from a whole range of instruments, including electrical meters, micrometer screw-gauges, meter rules, digital thermometers, scalar counters and more.

A summary of the suggested procedure is given on the whiteboard of the virtual lab, which helps to remind students of what they are supposed to be doing, and the lab walls also have some interesting quotes from prominent and relevant scientists. Though there are clearly no risk assessments to conduct, it is reassuring that there is a fire extinguisher available if needed!

Teachers would need to be sensitive to the preferences for hands-on practical work when considering this software, but it does have great potential in the situations mentioned above. The software is well designed by an experienced physicist and, though mostly aimed at 16-18 year-old students (in the UK), some of it may be used with younger students. Rob Lucas is approachable and keen to help, via e-mail, with any issues that arise. Further details are available at: http://www.virtual-science.co.uk/.  

Please note: The Virtual Physics Laboratory is not to be confused with the Virtual Science Laboratory from John Nunn and the Institute of Physics.

Published March 2017