Shilpa Giri

A recently published Technician column advocated in favor of online lab courses replacing traditional labs, especially the 100- and 200-level courses. However, I strongly disagree with the author’s opinion and believe that in-lab experience gives students skills they would never be able to acquire otherwise. In fact, hands-on experience is a crucial part of the learning process across all disciplines and not just science.

While the author believes 100- and 200-level labs should either be made entirely online or at least a hybrid of both online and traditional, he fails to understand the implications this decision will have on students. Laboratory skills are not something that can be learned overnight; it takes years of experience for students to learn the art of navigating the space of a lab. A student who has taken virtual lab classes all their life may be very well-versed in the theory the lab was based off of, but will fail when it comes to actual research and field work a career in STEM will demand from them.

The author states that the change he proposes will allow “students to explore science without consequences.” However, the whole purpose of science is that there are consequences. One mistake in choosing the chemical compound can cause a catastrophic explosion, one missing bolt can cause a structure to collapse, and one wrong incision can end a life. Science is all about consequences, and hiding that truth from students will only harm them and the future of STEM. A future employer will never want a student with just straight As; they need students who know how to work with their hands, proven by how important internships and co-ops are during recruitment.

By working in a lab, no matter how boring or insignificant it may seem, students learn how to handle themselves in a potentially dangerous environment under the guidance of trained TAs and professors. They learn how to properly use various kinds of equipment, how to accurately record observations and draw conclusions, and learn the general ethics and safety rules of being in a laboratory, skills that are much more important than students like the author realize.

Evan Akeroyd, a second-year graduate student and TA for Chemistry 102, the lab that accompanies Chemistry 101, spoke on the importance of lab learning.

“The lab provides a different type of learning environment that makes the students think about the content in a way that's different from the traditional lecture,” Akeroyd said. “Students get great experience conducting experiments and drawing conclusions from their observations. This would not be as effective if the lab was conducted online.”

While I agree with the author that online content can “provide deeper conceptual understanding of topics” to the students, virtual labs should not replace traditional labs entirely. To quote the American Chemistry Society, “Computer simulations that mimic laboratory procedures have the potential to be a useful supplement to student hands-on activities, but not a substitute for them.” 

Furthermore, NC State has already implemented web-based learning into a number of their courses, including lab classes, with the help of WebAssign and other web-based learning tools. These tools do help students visualize 3D structures, understand the concepts and procedures better, and are used for completing post-lab and pre-lab assignments. 

I also believe that if labs were to be made fully online, a number of students may not give as much attention to them as they should. It would facilitate cheating, as students could easily copy “observations” from each other, or even with the help of online homework services like Chegg or Course Hero. By forcing students to attend labs once a week, they are compelled to learn how to manage the space of a lab, socialize and work with their lab partners, and also get one-on-one help from their lab instructor.

NC State however, is working on a project “to help address limited access to lab-based education to a diverse population of students, such as deployed military and pregnant students.” This is a helpful alternative for students who can not physically come to labs due to health reasons, etc.

In a world where everything is becoming technology-based, it’s important to know where to draw the line. The internet and artificial systems cannot and should not replace everything we do. The concept of virtual labs should only be used for those who literally can not come to the lab, as it would be immensely detrimental to students’ academic growth if they choose to opt out of in-person labs. These labs are important for learning, even if some students don’t realize it.