Most of our work in the sciences is based on the premise that laboratory work is absolutely fundamental in learning and applying scientific concepts (Alkhaldi et al., 2015). Laboratory work has proven to increase students’ performance and interest in science-based classes (Tuysuz, 2010). Labs also support the development of authentic student inquiry and students’ understanding of the scientific process. According to Alkhaldi et al., (2015), there are two options to consider when physical, hands-on labs are not possible:
- Remote Lab: A remote lab is defined when the experiment(s) is located physically away from the experimenter. The experiment is conducted in a physical lab, which is connected to the learner(s) remotely via the network. For example, students may connect remotely to move robots in a laboratory to conduct an experiment.
- Virtual Lab: In a virtual lab, programs simulate laboratory environments whereby students can access and conduct experiments in a virtual space. [This lab is also called a “simulated lab.”]
Comparisons of learning outcomes between virtual and remote labs (VRLs) and hands-on physical labs have demonstrated that there are some advantages to VRLs: They can be available 24/7, the experiments can be done multiple times, and some unobservable phenomena such as thermodynamics, chemical reaction, and electricity can be well visualized (Heradio et al., 2016). In the section below this one, you’ll find some points to consider when moving your physical lab into a VRL setting. Scroll down farther for a list of specific VRL resources.
Identify which lab activities can be delivered online
In some cases, a portion of the lab activities usually delivered through orientation/pre-lectures and demonstrations of techniques can be pre-recorded. Students can be asked to familiarize themselves with procedures. You can also host Zoom sessions to do demonstrations, if possible.
Provide students with raw data to analyze
If your course involves data collection and analysis, consider walking your students through or demonstrating the data collection yourself, then providing your students with data to analyze. You can also display a screen recording to demonstrate your own process of data analysis. Remote learning and virtual labs can be a great opportunity to solidify students’ statistical knowledge and know-how.
Conducting lab activities together is a way for students to interact with instructors and their peers. Consider using other communication tools to promote direct student interaction. Remote and virtual learning labs where students are allowed to work in pairs or groups can increase interest and performance in laboratory settings. You can replicate these activities using breakout rooms in Zoom.
Investigate virtual lab options
There are many online labs and simulations available. For a curated list, check out the NASC Laboratory Google Sheet in Resources, below. If there are no suitable options for virtual labs, you may be able to find a video recording of appropriate lab procedures in the Journal of Visualized Experiments. Volumes 1 (2006) through 140 (2018) are publicly available on the PubMed website. Other venues such as Khan Academy or even YouTube may include recorded experiments or procedures like dissections. Of course, you also have the option of filming yourself performing an experiment and providing that video to students. Viewing such materials need not be a passive experience for your students. By dividing videos into sections, you can interleave activities like hypothesis formation, or ask students to justify the recorded experimenters’ methods and procedures. You can even ask students to write up lab reports in a “role playing” mode, as if they were part of the team conducting the recorded experiment.
Cultivate long-term projects
Lab classes that engage students in semester-long projects will likely prove the most difficult of all to migrate into a remote teaching modality. In many such courses, your students will already have been working on their projects for several weeks before being separated from the facilities, equipment, and materials they need to bring those projects to completion. In some cases, students may be able to produce a subset of the project originally envisioned by focusing on the data already collected and giving detailed descriptions of what their next experimental or investigative steps would have been, given appropriate physical resources. You might even be able to re-envision the culminating deliverable. For example, if you intended for students to report their results in a publishable journal article, but they cannot now complete that task due to lack of laboratory access, perhaps you could revise the assignment into a grant proposal supporting the additional research needed to complete the project. Consider designing research questions along the lines of long-term citizen science or non–citizen science databases. Citizen science databases are where the public can collect and contribute data to a larger database. Non–citizen science databases are largely run by scientists (see examples in Resources, below).
- Colgate’s NASC laboratory sciences resource sheet includes resources across disciplines, with links and descriptions.
- The Open Educational Resources in the MERLOT Simulation Collection (California State University) include thousands of free simulations on a broad range of topics. The database is searchable by keyword, and each item in the collection provides details, including material type, authorship, brief description, peer-review rating, and user rating.
- For a curated list of online lab lessons and resources, check out #OnlineLabSci.
- ChemCollective (a joint project of the NSF, Carnegie Mellon, and National Science Digital Library) offers free, online chem lab simulations for topics, including stoichiometry, thermochemistry, equilibrium, acid-base chemistry, solubility, oxidation/reduction and electrochemistry, and analytical chemistry/lab techniques.
- MIT offers videos of Digital Lab Techniques here.
- Free online simulations and teaching activities for physics, chemistry, math, earth science, and biology can be found at PhET Interactive Simulations (University of Colorado – Boulder). While the site has simulations for all grade levels, a link takes you to simulations designed for university students.
- eScienceLabs and Hands-On Labs are fee-based services that will work with faculty to create custom online and hands-on lab kits for courses.
- HHMI BioInteractive focuses on resources for teaching life sciences and earth sciences.
- Go-Lab is part of a European initiative to share remote and virtual labs.
- Check out these citizen science or non–citizen science databases:
Alkhaldi, T., Pranata, I., & Athauda, R.I. (2016). A review of contemporary virtual and remote laboratory implementations: observations and findings. Journal of Computers in Education, 3(3), 329-351.
Heradio, R., De La Torre, L., Galan, D., Cabrerizo, F.J., Herrera-Viedma, E., & Dormido, S. (2016). Virtual and remote labs in education: A bibliometric analysis. Computers & Education, 98, 14-38.
Tüysüz, C. (2010). The effect of the virtual laboratory on students’ achievement and attitude in chemistry. International Online Journal of Educational Sciences, 2(1).
Content on this page was adapted from the following websites:
Best Practices for Online Lab Experiments (Pepperdine University); Teaching Labs Online (UC Clermont); Course Continuity for Lab Courses (Middlebury College); Online Labs: Strategies and How-Tos for Online Lab Activities (Montana State University); Best Practices For…Running Lab Activities (Stanford University); and Keep Teaching – Run Lab Activities (Indiana University). Many of these sites are published under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial 4.0 license, or they contain material drawn from other sites published under the same license.