HOW CAN I OFFER VIRTUAL LABS?

For labs that were originally designed to be face-to-face in a laboratory, it can be difficult to envision how these experiences can translate to a hybrid or online learning environment. When students do not have access to specific equipment or a space to safely conduct various experiments, we have to find creative solutions. Here are some questions to consider when re-thinking your lab session for a flexible course:

  • What is the goal of the lab? 
  • What do you intend for the students to learn by doing this lab? 

Rethinking your lab for flexible teaching

Define the overall goal(s) of your lab experience. We have identified four overarching goals, independent of discipline. Do your goals include one or more of these? 

  1. Perform and troubleshoot a particular technique
  2. Visualize a principle
  3. Interpret experimental data
  4. Conduct authentic research

Suggestions for each goal are included in the following sections. Click the down arrow to jump to that point on the page.

Consider the resources that you will need to deliver and manage your virtual lab. For each of these lab goals, there are a variety of options for delivering and managing a virtual lab: Online simulations, demonstration videos, lab kits, guided inquiry exercises with real data, etc. In many cases, you may be able to find existing online materials that demonstrate the technique or principle covered in your lab. Visit Where can I find reliable content? to learn more. You can also check with your professional society (e.g., American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, etc.) or textbook publisher – many have identified and vetted teaching materials and other online resources that could be used and/or adapted for a lab.

In special cases, you may need to create your own virtual lab demonstrations, either live or recorded. For resources and strategies on creating your own videos, visit How do I create video materials?

Resources
> How to Rethink Science Lab Classes (Inside Higher Ed)
> How to Quickly (and Safely) Move a Lab Course Online (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Learn a particular technique

If your goal is for students to be able to use a particular technique, online simulations or videos will be helpful. To check that students have learned the technique, you can:

  • Probe students to describe what would happen if they leave out a certain step in an experiment.
  • Ask students to place the steps of an experiment in the correct order or to identify the next step in the process. 
  • Show students images or video clips and ask them to find any errors with the particular technique used or apparatus setup. 

Resources
> Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE) is a peer-reviewed video journal of laboratory demonstrations in biology, chemistry, engineering and psychology. Duke University Libraries has a subscription; start at the Libraries’ website to access full content. 
> LabXchange contains simulations and demonstrations of molecular biology techniques.
> ChemCollective has a virtual chemistry lab stockroom filled with stock reagents to perform various experiments.

Visualize a principle

If your goal is for students to visualize a principle (that is, the lab is a demonstration), you may be able to find high-quality online demonstrations at some of the same sources linked above. Here are some ideas to help students learn from the demonstration:

  • To help students learn to apply the principle, describe the demonstration and ask your students to predict what will happen before actually showing the demonstration. Ask your students to explain their reasoning. 
  • After the demonstration, ask students to explain what happened and why. Ask if their prediction was correct and why or why not.
  • Then, ask students to make a prediction given a different set of parameters. 

Resources
> Labster offers a variety of virtual labs that can be embedded directly into Sakai and integrate with the Sakai Gradebook. 
> MERLOT has a collection of virtual science labs from a variety of sources.
> Howard Hughes Medical Institute has high-quality interactive labs for biology topics.
> PhET includes many interactive simulations in physics, chemistry, biology, earth science and math.
> Wolfram Demonstrations has a hub of virtual simulations and visualizations for a variety of science, mathematics, engineering and computer science concepts that can be shared or embedded in your course materials.
> Need more? Check out this massive list of online science simulations and laboratory resources.

Interpret experimental data

If your goal is for students to be able to interpret experimental data, you can find and share data sets from a variety of sources. Published literature often includes data sets that can be reworked for a data analysis project. You could also use data collected from student reports in previously taught courses. 

Resources
> Biomedical and life science datasets are available to download from Brown University.
> ATLAS Open Data provides datasets collected from the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) available to download.

Conducting authentic experiments and field research

Carrying out experiments at home. If your goal is to have students do authentic research projects, your students can design and carry out experiments with items that they have available or through purchased lab kits. Students can then present data, interpretations and predictions; design the experiments to address the next question or present the next hypothesis. For example, one physics professor asked his students to use a magnet in one of the objects they had at home to illustrate a principle and create a video explanation. 

Conducting field research. Citizen science projects through iNaturalist and Zooniverse can give students an opportunity to observe various phenomena, collect real data and share their findings with the broader scientific community.

Presenting findings. Students can make brief videos of their at-home experiments or field research by:

  • Presenting posters online
  • Presenting a talk with slides
  • Creating a video demonstration
  • Pecha Kucha (20 images, 20 seconds each) 
  • Dance the research
  • Written reports in a specified format

For any of these options, break down the assignment into smaller steps where the students can get feedback from the instructor or from peers (or use self-reflection) to improve on the next step and the final project. 

Resources
> QUBES is a collection of resources and methods to help students tackle real, complex, biological problems.
> Citizen and Community Science Projects (University of Michigan)