I love science, and I love research; the idea of using chemistry or biology to find the answers to interesting questions is so fascinating. Yet, I absolutely loathe the laboratory classes required for 100- and 200-level classes. When I sit in a lab for three hours rolling a ball down a small hill or mindlessly following a chemistry procedure, I can’t help but think there could be a better use of my time. Understanding that many other students also feel this way (i.e. they go to their lab classes to “go through the motions” and leave as quickly as possible), there can be an improvement in the structure of lab classes to better benefit students.
When I was in high school, we often supplemented hands-on labs with online, virtual labs depending on the situation. If it was an experiment we didn’t have time or resources for, then our teacher could assign us the online lab to complete, and we would still be able to complete post lab activities as well as lab reports if necessary. This idea can and should be implemented into NC State 100- and 200-level lab classes to either provide an entirely online option or a hybrid class option.
Online, virtual labs are a relatively new field of educational reform that is slowly starting to take shape in collegiate environments. These labs can range from basic two-dimensional computer activities, which serve to provide deeper conceptual understanding of topics by toggling certain variables, to 3D lab simulations that provide an immersive experience and help emphasize skills learned. Moreover, these labs can be the traditional, procedure-based labs or can be open-ended, allowing for students to explore science without consequences.
According to Marcia Linn, an educational psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, virtual labs can benefit students, as they can allow for more time with the lab information, a deeper conceptual understanding and an opportunity to learn more through personal pursuit. Specifically, she stated that the virtual labs better aid in understanding complex phenomena that can’t be seen easily, such as chemical reactions and climate change. However, in order for students to truly comprehend and digest the information learned, the students must have an opportunity to reflect, which can still be done through post-lab assignments and lab reports as normal.
Few quantitative, controlled studies of laboratory simulations exist currently due to the relatively new movement for online labs; however, a study from 2011 found that students who completed labs online/in virtual environments scored roughly the same as their traditional counterparts, showing that virtual labs do not hurt the academic performances of students. Moreover, a study from the Technical University of Denmark found that 97% of students using the online simulation lab felt it made the course feel more interesting, by decreasing the disconnect and monotony students may feel in lab classes.
The idea of moving to online labs is often met with the rebuttal that students wouldn’t learn the lab skills that lab classes teach. However, it is important to recognize that the main learning objective of the 100- to 200-level classes is to supplement lecture information with the application of experiments in order to develop a deeper conceptual understanding. If students wish to learn laboratory skills, they should have the option to take in-person lab courses as well as a hybrid course.
Currently, Arizona State University is offering the first fully online biology course that utilizes virtual lab simulations to replace in-person lab work, and more universities, such as the University of Texas at San Antonio, are expected to follow. Although it is relatively under-researched, the current literature on the topic is leaning towards implementing it further in university settings. Being that NC State is a pioneer across the board when it comes to education reform and implementing new technology into the classroom to improve learning, the Wolfpack should be jumping on the idea of virtual labs to replace the 100- and 200-level laboratory classes.