OLW Offers Virtual Research, Labs

CORRECTION TO THIS ARTICLE: The Aug. 30, 2007 feature article about OpenLabWare attributed inaccurate information to Stephen E. Carson, external relations director of OpenCourseWare. OCW will have 1,800 courses online by November 2007, not 18,000 courses, Carson said.

During his freshman year, George S. Zaidan ’08 ran into a problem while teaching a small research-related class to a group of high school students.

Using examples and questions based on his previous research, Zaidan asked the students to design an experiment and interpret results. But he soon realized that the students had never been exposed to the notion of research. “These were very smart kids,” Zaidan said. “But they had trouble with these sorts of problems.”

Inspired by his experience with this group of students and by the OpenCourseWare model, Zaidan came up with the idea of a Web-based project that could teach people how research works before they get to college.

He called it OpenLabWare.

With the help of his academic adviser, Professor John M. Essigmann PhD ’76 of the Biological Engineering Department, Zaidan set out to find support and funding for his idea.

Two years and approximately $30,000 later, OpenLabWare is live. The site ( will host “modules,” or case studies of real research, that describe and analyze the entire experimental process and each step that leads up to the publication of specific manuscripts.

“The idea is to get inside the researchers’ heads to find out what thought processes make them such successful scientists and engineers,” Zaidan said.

Additionally, OLW users will be able to “see the personal side of research,” Essigmann said. Modules include video interviews with the authors of the paper, including the professor and the graduate students involved.

Currently, the OLW site has one module, which is based on one of Essigmann’s published papers.

Creating the module “was a wonderful way for me to interact with an undergraduate as an equal,” Essigmann said. “It’s a terrific model for faculty-student interaction.”

Zaidan said that two more modules have been drafted and should be available shortly. These two modules were created with Professor Matthew J. Lang of Biological Engineering and Professor Barbara Imperiali of Chemistry. Additionally, four other modules are in production. Zaidan said he expects these six modules will be online by next May or June.

After the first six are complete, “we are hoping to be a production house, cranking out five modules per semester,” Zaidan said. That number is a far cry from the 400–500 courses added by OpenCourseWare each year since its 2003 opening, but Zaidan feels that it is sufficient for OLW. “Each module has a lot of material,” Zaidan said. “We feel a relatively small number can capture what research at MIT is like.”

Modules are created by student contributors who are interested in specific areas of research, according to Zaidan. These “content creators” work with professors who are similarly interested in the OLW project and pick a research paper.

When choosing a paper, “the impact of the work comes into play,” Zaidan said. So does “relevancy for non-scientists and engineers. We try to select papers that will draw people’s interest based on things that they can relate to.” Zaidan used cancer research as an example.

Working with the professor, as well as graduate student authors of the papers, OLW content creators review primary data such as laboratory notebooks, annotate the data, interview the authors (both on and off camera), and write an overview with a glossary of terms, all of which is made available in the module, Zaidan said. The glossary, which “first started as an afterthought,” became one of the most important components of each OLW module, said Zaidan.

“We also get some other really cool material,” Zaidan said. “For example, Professor Lang gave us an ‘MTV Cribs’-style walking tour of his lab, and Professor Imperiali gave us some amazing vacation photos.”

One crucial component of each module, Zaidan said, is the journal manuscript itself. The paper that was chosen by Essigmann and Zaidan for the first module is from the mid 1970s and is old enough that it “has no Intellectual Property issues,” Essigmann said. Additional research papers used for the site will be more recent, and OLW will need the permission of the professor and the publisher in order to make it available online. “We’re optimistic about getting permission” from journals and publishers, he said.

Zaidan said that OLW currently has permission from Lang’s manuscript publisher, Biophysical Journal. “It’s a win-win for their journal,” Zaidan said. “They only release one article and they get linked to from an official MIT site.”

In summer 2006, Zaidan took a trip to Thailand and introduced OLW to students and teachers there. Zaidan said his trip was useful in helping to evaluate how OLW could be used internationally.

Zaidan also said that the OLW Web site is undergoing a redesign. The new site will include different portals for students and teachers and will a create a community of teachers who can share educational materials amongst themselves on the site.

There is no formal connection between OpenLabWare and the older and more well-known OpenCourseWare, according to Stephen E. Carson, external relations director of OCW. However, OCW has consulted with Zaidan and “provided some advice on dealing with Intellectural Property issues,” Carson said.

Additionally, Carson said, OCW is helping to support the new site’s distribution of videos. OCW has an umbrella contract with Akamai Technologies for video distribution and has folded OLW’s videos under that umbrella, Carson said.

According to Carson, OpenCourseWare will have spent $29 million by November 2007, the end of the “build phase” in which 18,000 courses representing all of MIT’s curriculum will be published online.