While we’ve all been rapidly propelled into online learning in recent months, the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines have had the additional challenge of bringing what are normally hands-on labs to the virtual realm.
Many different solutions have been implemented by U of T’s resourceful instructors, who deserve our thanks and admiration for coming up with effective solutions that are in line with target learning outcomes, yet still successfully engage students in authentic activities.
As described on the OLS Virtual Labs for Remote/Online Courses resource page, there are many innovative examples including the following:
- Using open source materials that have been shared at no cost and creating interactive labs within Quercus modules.
- Creating custom labs or activity guides using video clips of course lab demonstrations and accompanying data sets for analysis.
- Licensing rich content that includes real-time virtual lab simulations and formative assessment available from publishers and other discipline–specific providers.
- Using common objects found at home or easily purchased for DIY activities or sending physical kits for experiments directly to students.
Many of the learning objectives of laboratory courses can be achieved with lab simulations and DIY solutions, and there are additional affordances unique to the online environment.
Some of the benefits of incorporating lab simulations into courses include:
- Allowing laboratory courses to move online and increasing student engagement — Many of the virtual lab options incorporate elements of gaming and storytelling.
- Enabling students to go at their own pace — Online labs help close the knowledge gap by allowing students to finish labs when they want and at the pace they need.
- Improving understanding of the concepts by students — Many of the interactive labs incorporate pedagogical techniques proven to facilitate better understanding of the theoretical information presented.
- Offering options to replace, prepare for, or supplement in-person labs — Virtual labs can familiarize students with the techniques, skills, processes, protocols and underlying theory in lieu of or in preparation for in-person labs.
- Broadening access to science education — May give students virtual access to experiences that would not normally be part of their undergraduate course due to size of class/lab space limitations.
Virtual Lab Pilots at UofT
Beyond Labz offers virtual labs in General Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Physics and Biology.
Developed at Brigham Young University through 20 years of research, Beyond Labz offers research-based, open-ended virtual lab experiences that provide students with opportunities to experiment, practice, fail, discover and learn without the limitations, expense and safety constraints of an in-person lab experience. The simulation platform is built upon actual experimental data and the most advanced models available. The aim is to teach students how to be scientists by allowing them to experience real outcomes and learn from their failures by not having such simulation constraints.
The virtual lab settings are designed around different lab benches that are specific to experiment types (i.e., for the Organic Chemistry virtual labs, the Synthesis and Qualitative Analysis lab benches are different).
Throughout each virtual lab experience, students can record/report data in a virtual lab book, copy their data, and even take snapshots so that they can then analyze their results in a Google sheet or Excel (for submission). For more information:
- Beyond Labz webinar recording
- Beyond Labz catalogue of higher education lab simulations
- Beyond Labz website and YouTube channel provide additional details
Online Learning Strategies has recently shared eCampusOntario’s call for Expression of Interest submissions and has since coordinated a submission on behalf of U of T faculty interested in using Beyond Labz simulations in STEM courses for the 2021 Winter and 2021 Summer terms. View Online Learning Strategies website page detailing this initiative.
Labster offers virtual lab simulations that give students access to a realistic lab experience that lets them perform simulated experiments and practice their skills in a fun and risk-free learning environment. Labster, a Danish company founded in 2011, offers virtual lab simulations that include quiz questions and background theory to engage students in an immersive, game-like multimedia experience. The simulations are based on mathematical algorithms that support open-ended investigations, combined with gamification elements, storytelling and a scoring system that highlights the connection between science and the real world. For more information:
- Labster demo video,
- Student welcome guide on YouTube
- Labster’s website and YouTube channel provide additional details
Labster lab simulations are being used by several courses at the three University of Toronto campuses. Labster is fully integrated into Quercus as of September 2020.
Labster at U of T Timeline:
- 2016 – December 31, 2017: Active Learning Opportunities Through Virtual Lab Curricular Integration, supported through eCampusOntario. See virtual lab integration final report. for more information.
- September 1, 2017 – August 31, 2018: Human Biology in Action Sandbox Project, supported through eCampusOntario. See UofT report of on instructors’ experience published by on Pressbooks, including key findings of this pilot initiative.
- August 2020: Labster is available as an integrated tool in Quercus and may be licensed for course use. See Quercus integration details.
- September 2020: A Labster-UofT fall pilot project is underway as described in this earlier Online Learning post.
Online Learning Strategies is keeping tabs on any upcoming pilot opportunities involving virtual lab simulations. For a consultation please email email@example.com.