EVANSTON, Ill. — For the last three months, some 1,000 middle and high school students from the Chicago area and beyond have been using science equipment almost 9,000 miles away to learn about radioactivity and shed light on the question “Do cell phones fry your brain?”

The five-day laboratory curriculum on radioactivity is a product of the iLab Network, which is supported by a $1 million National Science Foundation grant shared by Northwestern University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. iLab researchers at Northwestern are developing remote online laboratory experiences for high school students that for the first time will give them access to world class science resources and instrumentation around the globe.

“The students get really excited when, via a live webcam, they turn on the distant Geiger counter at Australia’s University of Queensland, and it begins following their instructions,” says Kemi Jona, director of Northwestern’s University’s Office of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Education Partnerships (OSEP). A clock atop the clicking Geiger counter is a reminder that Australia is more than a dozen time zones away.

(Editor’s note: Illinois high school students in Northfield, Wheeling and Aurora will be engaged in the curriculum Nov. 16 to 20 and Nov. 23 to 27.)

Students use the Australian Geiger counter, for example, to investigate how the intensity of radiation changes in relationship to its distance from the radiation source — an expression of what in physics is called the inverse square law. They contribute to the experiment’s design by deciding on the number of trials they will run as well as the distance, for how long and at how many distances the device will measure a sample of strontium-90 for radioactivity.

“iLabs demonstrate how innovative learning technologies can level the playing field and provide all students — regardless of a school’s location or resources — access to advanced and authentic science lab experiences,” Jona says. “The remote labs are not just about building skills. They’re also about exciting students and motivating students to pursue majors and careers in science, engineering, technology and mathematics.”

Traditional high school labs often are limited by safety concerns and by supply and equipment availability. With classroom time at a premium, the typical high school lab has to fit within a 45-minute period and is conducted only a single time.

“But doing a lab once, writing down the answer and moving on is antithetical to how science experiments actually are conducted,” says Jona, research associate professor in Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy. “It creates a false perception of how real world science is practiced.”

In contrast, remote iLabs can be assigned as homework and run by students at home as many times and in as many ways as they like. As a result, students are more likely to understand that there’s no single right answer to an experiment. They learn that the more trials they conduct and more data they gather, the better their scientific conclusions will be.

“iLabs are not simulations,” Jona emphasizes. “They give students the chance to work with actual instruments and real data. With open access to scientific instrumentation, they can take advantage of replicability and analyze variations in their results — activities at the heart of the scientific enterprise.”

Preliminary data from the pilot Radioactivity iLab suggest that students not only are learning about radiation and the inverse square law. They also appear to better understand that science experiments are less about following directions than creativity.

In an era of budget cuts, the iLab Network presents a potentially new model in which districts or states could share the cost of high school science laboratories.