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They Can See Clearly Now

Marquette University puts experiments within six inches of its students' noses with a high-tech video and projection system

Anyone who has taken a lab where 24 students strain to watch--and subsequently, replicate--a chemistry experiment knows just how difficult the task can be. Fifteen minutes and a quick run-through later, and you're expected to make magic happen, regardless of how clear or confused you were on the instructions.

Knowing this, the folks at Milwaukee-based Marquette University's Department of Chemistry moved into the technology age recently when they asked SmartChoice AV Solutions of Racine, WI, to design a video system that would allow even the back of the room dwellers to see, in full view, exactly what is going on at the demonstration table.

Vaughn Ausman, director of labs, said the idea came about during a major overhaul of Marquette's science buildings, many of which were built in the late '50s and early '60s. Upgrading five laboratories was of particular importance for the school, which uses one teaching assistant per 24-student section. The high student to teacher ratio made small-scale demonstrations a challenge.

"For 40 years we've been putting a drop of something into something and expecting all 24 students to be able to see it," said Ausman. "The TA would hold the demonstration up, and the first row could see, the second row might be able to see, and the others really didn't care so they didn't see at all."

One Row at a Time
To better equip the first two rows, and to get the third and subsequent rows more involved, Ausman said he liked the idea of having a video system that could focus on the small-scale demonstrations and project them to a 60" x 80" electronic wall screen. Using some of the funds and donations allocated to a six-year renovation project for the university buildings--and projectors donated by 3M--the school purchased Samsung SVP 5300 document cameras that create clear images in all ambient light levels.
 
To ensure that the most accurate picture is being projected without having to turn around and look at the big screen, TAs use a four-inch LCD confidence monitor that's mounted on the neck of the document camera, which uses a single power supply to avoid excess wiring. SmartChoice also designed the demonstration table, whose Epoxyn surface can handle hydrochloric acid spills (a feature that is hopefully never needed).

Mike Palecek, president at SmartChoice AV Solutions, worked with Ausman and other key faculty to come up with the design. In doing so, he said he took a practical approach to the problem and combined it with a high-tech touch that resulted in a piece of furniture that's a lot like "a kitchen cabinet island" on wheels.

"We wanted them to be able to put it and use it anywhere, with a document camera that was fluid enough to be set up for any type of experiment," said Palecek. "Our engineer has a master's degree in biology, so he 'gets it' when it comes to chemistry and was able to come up with a design that fit the bill perfectly."

Now if Ausman could just get his team of TAs to use the technology to its fullest potential. "They still want to hold up the experiment and hope that everyone sees it," said Ausman, who has worked closely with the team of assistants, getting them to see the value of projecting a clear, large image ("as if it were six inches in front of the student's nose," he said) instead of a clouded beaker of indecipherable compounds.

"It's only the beginning of our second year using this, and during the first year we learned that it's not the system itself that was creating challenges," said Ausman, "but rather they way in which it was being used."

Making the Grade
As the TAs acclimate themselves to using technology to get their students clued into the nitty-gritty of their experiments, the system helps them reap other rewards. A slide-out drawer on the demo cart, for example, can accommodate a computer and allow the TA to transfer Microsoft Excel or PowerPoint images onto the big screen.

That's a big improvement over the single, 3-1/2' x 8' blackboard that was previously used in the labs to give students a light "preview" of the day's experiment. "The TA would jam it all onto that little space in the corner of the lab," said Ausman.

Being able to convey that information on Excel and PowerPoint slides has not only made life easier for the school's chemistry team, but it has also helped motivate students to success. "Chemistry is not the most beloved of classes, so we need to kind of beat them over the head with something they don't have to struggle to see," said Ausman, who attempted to use whiteboards at one point, then turned to the new and improved solution when the projection system was installed.

Intended to support the general chemistry lab program at Marquette, the SmartChoice AV system is currently being used both by regular session and summer school classes. Ausman doesn't expect any other departments to make use of the system but doesn't rule out the use of similar technology in other areas of study as the school continues to upgrade its facilities.
 
"This was really designed for the chemistry space," said Palecek, who added that he sees the high-tech system as a selling point for the school when it comes to student recruitment. "We took some of the best practices from other [schools] and made them better, while at the same time trying to keep things economical. The end result is a differentiator that sets Marquette apart from other campuses that students are applying to."

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About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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