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Culture, history and society

2020 Lawrence Bragg Medal and Prize

Professor Nicholas St John Braithwaite for his outstanding contribution to the authentic teaching of practical science through the development of the award-winning OpenSTEM Labs, available to learners in all places and at all times.

Professor Nicholas St John Braithwaite 2020 Lawrence Bragg Medal and Prize winner

Professor Nicholas (Nick) Braithwaite was the main visionary and driver of the development of The Open University’s OpenScience Laboratory, and as director of the Laboratory for many years, extended its reach to form the OpenSTEM Labs.

The OpenSTEM Labs support learning at many educational levels, providing online practical activities that include open-access resources to a wide range of audiences.

The fundamental vision for the OpenSTEM Labs is that they should make authentic and interactive practical science available to students and informal learners wherever they are and whenever they need it.

The Labs offer investigations based on real-time remote access experiments, on-screen instruments and virtual scenarios using real data and authentic interfaces.

In one approach users are able to control a range of lab-based instruments and experiments, including optical and electron microscopes, x-ray-scattering experiments, and optical and radio telescopes.

Activities can be configured for individual or group work though users are not co-located with each other or the equipment. For multiple simultaneous use activities can be arranged to give an authentic experience of using apparatus such as a fine beam tube, based on real archival data.

In a third approach data is streamed on request from live instruments such as a Completely Autonomous Service Telescope, which is part of the Observatories wing of the OpenSTEM Labs.

Braithwaite saw the potential for collaborative online working and full use is made of synchronous and asynchronous online communication tools.

‘Labcasts’ provide live streaming from on-campus labs to hundreds of remote users, supported by real-time discussion forums. The OpenSTEM Labs model enables skills development in highly realistic contexts.

For example in the ‘Mars Yard’, users experience the control of a real rover in a simulated Mars landscape, whilst also working as a member of a distributed team faced with the reality of limited communication windows, data rates and power budgets.

Under Braithwaite’s leadership, the OpenSTEM labs have transformed the teaching of physics and other STEM subjects through practical work, to a global audience of formal and informal learners. The Labs provide over 100,000 hours per year of practical engagement.

Student satisfaction is very high.

Braithwaite remained the director of the OpenSTEM Labs until his appointment as executive dean of the STEM faculty in 2019. The OpenSTEM Labs have won several major awards for educational innovation.

This award recognises Nick Braithwaite’s personal vision and contribution and the massive national and international impact that the OpenScience Laboratory, the OpenScience Observatories and ongoing research into their use have had on the teaching of physics.