Expanding the Virtual Classroom: Making Science Labs Available to Online Students

Practical experiences in physics, biology, chemistry, and other science courses can make fundamental concepts more tangible for students and thus help them achieve course objectives. For this reason, a laboratory component is an important part of a science course’s curriculum. However, if you’re teaching an science course online and you want your students to benefit from practice in a lab, what can you do? Don’t worry! There are lots of great options available.

Partnering With Other Universities to Offer Lab Credits

Separate labs, clinicals, and other types of practical instruction allow students to gain hands-on experience with key concepts covered in traditional lectures. For example, on-campus students might spend three hours per week in the classroom and one hour per week in an on-site lab. However, in an online environment, it can be difficult to provide students with the practical instruction they need to successfully master course content. So how can institutions address this challenge when offering a science course online?

Universities often have a system of educational reciprocity, particularly if a school lacks resources or perhaps does not offer a particular program of study. How would this type of arrangement work for institutions with online students? More specifically, what if an institution’s online students need to attend a lab to successfully complete an online science course?

  • One option is for the institution to offer the three-credit-hour portion of a course online and require local students to take the one-credit-hour lab portion of the course on site at the school.
  • Alternatively, students who are not local might be able to take the lab portion at another university (perhaps an affiliated school or a community college). However, students must make sure that their school will accept any credits they earn from the institution where they do their lab. This is important because institutions often have individualized policies regarding transfer credits; one institution may accept transfer credits, and another one may not.
  • The institution may even suggest partner (or affiliate) schools that offer the one-credit-hour lab course that students need. This option works best when an institution is already in a reciprocal agreement with other institutions. Regardless, it’s always wise for students to do their research before enrolling at another school, especially when agreements can fall apart and courses can suddenly disappear from a course catalog.

This option is best for higher level courses because on-campus labs typically align better with professional and academic requirements. However, if you’re looking for labs for basic undergraduate-level science courses (such as Biology 101 or Anatomy and Physiology), take a look at the following options.

At-Home Lab Supplies

On-campus students enrolled in lab courses can easily access the supplies and in-person instruction they need to perform lab experiments. Online students, however, lack the benefit of face-to-face instruction and access to supplies. In addition, using some required materials can be quite prohibitive, either because they are expensive, difficult to find, or unsafe to handle without proper supervision.

For that reason, some institutions have developed lab experiments that online students can perform easily at home using kitchen-safe supplies and common kitchen equipment. This way, online students can gain the practical experience they need to fully grasp course concepts and content. To ensure success, at-home labs should include step-by-step directions for each experiment (e.g., via instructional videos or detailed, illustrated handouts) and require students to submit a lab report that details their findings.

Online Laboratory Simulations

Online instructors can also use existing laboratory simulations. There are many great online resources that instructors can link within the learning management system. Here are a few options:

  • PhET Interactive Solutions at the University of Colorado—Boulder provides free interactive science simulations for topics such as physics, chemistry, biology, and more. PhET simulations use gamification to engage students. They’re available for all grade levels—from elementary to university students—and across all platforms and devices. For an example, click on this link to see a college-level simulation on acid-base solutions.
  • Late Nite Labs from Macmillan Learning provides highly immersive digital science labs. This provider uses an open-ended, customizable platform that works for different teaching styles and course requirements. Each lab comes with background information, procedures, and a lab manual. For instructors and students, many of these interactive options are actually free. Click this link to see a sampling of available science labs.
  • OnlineChemLabs provides students with customized interactive laboratory experiments. For as little as $42 per student, chemistry instructors can create a virtual lab component appropriate for high school or college-level students. Click this link to watch a video about how the Oregon State University E-Campus uses OnlineChemLabs.

Video Demonstrations

With online lab components, providing students with regimented lab instructions that read like a to-do list and asking them to replicate an experiment may not be the best option. Just like students in a traditional classroom, online students will have different learning styles; some will learn by working with content in a physical context (e.g., practicing titration in a lab or dissecting a biological specimen), and some will learn by watching someone else.

As an alternative to asking students to perform or replicate an experiment, you can create a video in which you perform the experiment and then post that video to the course. Then ask students to explain the results they observed by applying the concepts discussed in the related lecture (e.g., Why did the chemical explode? Why did the car crash?). Requiring students to apply course content to something they observed can sometimes help them understand and retain that information better.

Sending the Lab to the Students

Another way to incorporate authentic lab experiences into an online course is to work with companies that will ship science kits to your online students. Here are two options:

  • eScience Labs has collaborated with more than 300 colleges and universities to provide online students with authentic lab experiences that use digital curriculum, virtual learning tools, and hands-on kits to promote student engagement. Products include lab materials in physics, anatomy and physiology, forensics, and more. Instructors can request an online demonstration and even try out a sample kit.
  • Carolina Distance Learning® provides science lab kits for college-level distance education. They also offer a library of free curated resources. Online instructors can request a free sample investigation kit using this link. For more information, you can read this case study about how a professor at the University of North Carolina—Wilmington integrated Carolina Distance Learning® lab kits into an online biology course for the school’s online nursing program.

Costs for this type of service can range from $150 to more than $300 depending on the types of experiments you choose to include in a kit­­. Students will receive all of the equipment and lab materials that they need for an entire term of instruction, but you should consider that some students may not be able to afford an expensive kit.

Conclusion

The options discussed in this article show that instructors can make science labs (or a theoretical alternative) available to their online students. Institutions can work with other institutions to provide online students with lab access. If this is not possible, instructors can develop experiments that students can perform at home, incorporate online simulations, provide video demonstrations, focus on theoretical applications, or design and send complete lab kits to students. All of these options can help students meet course objectives more successfully and make practical, real-world connections to the material they are learning.

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