A virtual lab at Carnegie Mellon won an prize for its originality.

Students in introductory chemistry classes often start off with learning how to balance chemical equations. The educational message, according to Carnegie Mellon University chemistry professor David Yaron, seems to be, if you take in this stuff that’s not very interesting, you may get to use it later.

Aiming to substitute that approach with activities that allow students to design and carry out experiments more like real chemists, Yaron and some of his colleagues in the field developed the ChemCollective, virtual laboratories and online activities for introductory chemistry students. Because of their innovation and effectiveness as teaching tools, the software and corresponding website have been chosen to receive the Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE).

With virtual experiments such as one that allows students to use chemistry concepts to solve a murder in a research group whose work focuses on an antitoxin for spider bites, the ChemCollective offers the drama and intrigues of chemistry to students early on, Yaron says.

I hope there are some students who don’t think they’re interested in chemistry or don’t think they’re good at chemistry who might get drawn in, he says.

The Science Prize for Online Resources in Education (SPORE) is intended to single out the very best online materials freely available to science educators. The acronym SPORE suggests a reproductive element adapted to develop, often under duress, into something new. It also refers to the intention that the winning projects may be the seed of significant progress in science education, despite the many challenges to educational innovation.

Science publishes an article by each award recipient explaining the winning project. The article about the ChemCollective is in the journal’s April 30 edition.

“Improving science education is an important goal for all of us at Science,” says Editor-in-Chief Bruce Alberts. “We hope to help those innovators who have developed outstanding online resources reach a wider audience. Each winning website will be featured in an article in Science that is aimed at guiding science educators from around the world to valuable, free online resources.”

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