Supporting Students in Using Virtual Science Labs

Credit: iStock.com/MadamLead
Credit: iStock.com/MadamLead
The shift to remote learning during the pandemic gave faculty the opportunity to explore new technology and pedagogical approaches to teaching science-related courses. Science courses in particular can be challenging to host online without wet labs to provide students with hands-on experience. But virtual science labs offer a solution with active learning, visualization of scientific concepts, and development of basic scientific literacy.

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The shift to remote learning during the pandemic gave faculty the opportunity to explore new technology and pedagogical approaches to teaching science-related courses. Science courses in particular can be challenging to host online without wet labs to provide students with hands-on experience. But virtual science labs offer a solution with active learning, visualization of scientific concepts, and development of basic scientific literacy.

We designed virtual lab activities for blended a physics course using Beyond Labz, a digital simulation of a real lab. For instance, the Density Laboratory simulation has students to perform a wide range of experiments to explore and better understand the concepts governing buoyancy and the relative density of materials. Students log in to the site and see an animation of a real lab, with graduated cylinders that can be filled with liquids ranging from honey to jet fuel. The lab also contains a large selection of solids that can be dropped into these cylinders, and students can observe whether the solids float or sink in the selected liquids. Students can measure the time it takes for solids to reach the bottom of the cylinder as well as the liquid’s volume and mass. All the equipment—for example, a timer, a balance, a liquid dispenser, a beaker, and a drain—is on the screen.

Students use a mouse to manipulate equipment, try different experiments, and see the results. The lab looks and feels like a real wet lab: you can hear water running and splashing, the liquid dispenser turning, and the plop of a solid falling into a liquid, and the donging of a glass beaker when placing on the table. Also, instructors can develop their own activities because each lab supports hundreds of experiments. This opportunity to develop custom lab designs is one of the platform’s best features.

Implementation

Science lab activities are inquiry processes, and thus the inquiry framework suggested by de Jong et al. (2013) proved quite useful for thinking about virtual lab activities design. It involves five steps:

I will illustrate these steps using the Density Laboratory from Beyond Labz as an example. During the orientation phase, students are introduced to the problem. At this phase we motivate students to learn. Using open ended questions to pique curiosity or showing real life examples related to the problem will help activate prior knowledge and relate the problem to students’ experiences. An example is the video “The real story behind Archimedes’ Eureka!” by TED-Ed. This video tells a real story and introduces main concepts related to floatation in just four minutes.

It is important to think about different means of representation of the problem and provide multiple options for engagement (CAST, 2018). Learners differ in how they perceive and comprehend the information presented to them. Some students may grasp information quicker or more efficiently through visual or auditory means rather than printed text. Learners also differ in how they can be motivated to learn. Some are highly engaged by novelty, while others prefer strict routines.

If possible, providing a choice to work with peers or work alone may address students’ diverse needs. That’s why we devote a considerable amount of effort to attract learners’ attention during the orientation phase. According to CAST, information that is not attended to, that does not engage learners’ cognition, is inaccessible. The Universal Design for Learning guidelines developed by CAST offer a set of concrete suggestions that can be applied to any discipline or domain to ensure that all learners are able to access and participate in meaningful, challenging learning opportunities.

In the conceptualization phase, students learn about theoretical concepts related to the problem under investigation. Suggesting a couple of resources, such as a video and a text, for students to work through in groups or to study on their own is a good idea. The fewer resources the better. Learners have access to more resources now than ever before, but this can be overwhelming for them. With fewer options, it can be easier for students to know what to focus on. It will save precious time as well.

For example, a couple of chapters may be adopted from College Physics (an open educational resource published by OpenStax). The instructor may present information directly when students lack prior knowledge. According to CAST, there is no one means of representation that is optimal for all learners. Providing options—video, text, and images—will benefits all learners.

The investigation phase is about free exploration of the virtual science world or guided experimentation. For successful free exploration, suggesting some areas to explore will help students focus their inquiry and create a plan to do their experiments. Discussing real-life examples that virtual science experiments can model may be a good starting point too. I use free exploration as an optional part of each lab activity. Some students actually enjoy this part the most.

I like to surprise students with science. An unexpected explosion when dropping a cesium ball into water is part of this lab activity. First, students grab a cesium ball and drop it into a cylinder full of oil. Everything is fine and they do the measurements. Then, students grab and drop a cesium ball into a cylinder containing water. Boom! Students love that!

For guided experiments, preparing a lab report template, clear instructions with experiment steps, and requirements for data recordings and presentation helps reduce cognitive load. This, in turn, makes it easier for learners to concentrate on performing lab procedures. LabWrite is a great resource for writing lab reports for students and faculty alike. LabWrite helps your students learn science through writing better lab reports, and it is free!

Worksheets for preset (ready-to-use) experiments are available for instructors and students. I modified these worksheets to meet our particular learning goals. To support students, I created a lab report with the information about the lab and equipment, steps of the experiments, and data tables to be filled out with measurements. To see what students do while working at home, screenshots of the parts of experiments are extremely helpful.

During the conclusion phase, students look back at their results and state conclusions. Prompts or hints to direct students’ analysis are great strategies. Asking questions about the results may help students develop critical thinking and scientific literacy skills. Providing instructions on the details necessary in analysis and conclusion, explaining how to do analysis, and suggesting resources on graphs and tables help students summarize and present data. Recommending online resources is also great for improving digital literacy skills.

The discussion phase is crucial for successful implementation of virtual labs. An opportunity for students to share their inquiry with peers (and their teacher) supports the community of learners and gives them a chance to practice providing and receiving feedback as well as reflect on their learning. Ideally, students and I talk about netiquette and discussion rules in advance.

This phase can be easily done asynchronously and serve as meaningful connection between the synchronous and asynchronous parts of the class. Online discussions provide an opportunity for all students to share what they learned and to learn from others. I like to ask students to come up with real-life applications of what they learned by doing lab activities. This helps keep students engaged till the end of the activity too.

It is worth mentioning that successful learning with online labs requires that students have well-developed self-regulation skills. So, any support for developing self-regulating learning skills helps. Additionally, well-designed online learning environments are crucial for helping students learn online and become successful online lifelong learners.

Happy science virtual labs exploration with your students! May your journey be full of great discoveries!

References

CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org

de Jong, T., Sotiriou, S., & Gillet, D. (2014). Innovations in STEM education: The Go-Lab federation of online labs. Smart Learning Environments, 1. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40561-014-0003-6


Elena Chudaeva, PhD, is a professor of general education at George Brown College.