Teaching labs remotely
by Cynthia Brame, CFT associate director
As we start to prepare for teaching summer courses online, some instructors are making the shift toward teaching labs online. As many lab courses are designed to be about learning from hands-on, messy, real-world exploration, this shift can be a challenge.
Use your goals as your guide
One of the key steps to take to create a remote lab experience for your students is to use the “backwards design” process to guide you, identifying what core goals you really want your students to reach. Lab courses often focus on several of the goals below.
- Deepening understanding of content
- Building skill in experimental design
- Data collection
- Data analysis
- Presentation of experiments and results
Some of these goals are easier to include in a remote learning setting than others. Students can use online tools, simulations, videos, readings, and data sources to deepen their understanding of content. They can work with each other to develop experimental designs that you or your TAs help them refine and troubleshoot. They can do data analysis on datasets that are public or that you provide from previous years of the course, or they can analyze published data and critique its presentation. And finally, they can present their work synchronously via Zoom, asynchronously via electronic posters, or in a variety of other ways you can dream up. (I particularly like webpage galleries like the one we have for our BOLD Fellows.)
Of course, the piece that can be the hardest to address is data collection—and thus the opportunity for students to analyze their own messy and imperfect data. This can be accomplished in some disciplines, for some labs. For example Erika Grundstrom has her intro astronomy students design an experiment that centers around data collection from online databases. Forrest Charnock, director of the intro physics labs at Vanderbilt, is having his students design and build a pendulum and analyze the motion using whatever materials and tools they have at home. And my colleague from Centenary College, Beth Leuck, used to have her Animal Physiology students design an experiment about local animal behavior and collect and analyze those data (my favorite: the student who asked whether ants were more drawn to the turkey or the bread when they disturbed her lunch outside). In many cases, however, the type of work you had planned for your students to do—setting up reactions, running gels, building circuits—may just not be possible in the new setting.
The key is to really think through your core goals so that you can choose and/or create the learning experiences your students need to reach them—and so that you can let go of the pieces that are less essential or just not possible.
Think through how students will interact: In groups or solo? Synchronously or asynchronously?
In many labs courses, student collaboration is a central element. Students may work as a team on experimental design, data collection, data analysis, and/or presentations. They almost always work synchronously, at least for the hands-on part of the lab, although they may collaborate asynchronously when writing lab reports or creating posters. As you think about transitioning your lab online for the summer, it will be important to think about whether collaboration is essential, and if so, how to facilitate it. You’ll also want to think about whether you want students to work synchronously, and if so, why.
If you want your students to collaborate, it will be important for you to form groups for them. [There are conflicting data about whether instructor-formed or student-selected groups are better, but in an online setting where students may not know each other, instructor-formed is key.] It’s a good idea to collect information from the students about what time zones they are—and perhaps other information such as majors, interests, etc.—to help you form the groups. Create a space for them to work in on Brightspace where they can share information asynchronously, and then be clear about how you want them to interact: is it okay if they do all their work asynchronously, or do you want them to work through simulations, datasets, etc., at the same time.
As you think through whether students will work synchronously or asynchronously, there are a few pros and cons to consider. Letting them work asynchronously gives them the autonomy to choose when doing the work is best for them, and that’s powerful. It can also, however, leave them working alone on something that is challenging and that benefits from input from colleagues and the instructor. One option that I am very drawn to is to tell students that they should plan to do the lab during the “assigned” lab time, such as 1-4 p.m. CDT on Mondays. You as the instructor can have two channels open for students to pop into to ask you questions if they want: an open Zoom meeting and an open chat. Both allow for multiple students to pop in at once, and the chat is easier for students who may have less stable internet connections. Why do I like this approach so much? It allows students to have the interaction they need as they work, and it bounds the time that they should spend. If you tell the students that they should be finished in the three-hour block, then they know not to let their work expand beyond that. It’s not a perfect solution: we have students who are in time zones that are 12 hours away, and making exceptions for them is a good idea (no 1-4 a.m. labs, please!).
Draw from tools and examples others have created
This guide provides descriptions of some options for teaching labs remotely, describing resources in categories:
- Free collections of virtual labs and simulations
- Free collection of annotated papers
- Examples of “build-your-own,” instructor-generated approaches
- Commercial online lab resources
Free collections of virtual labs and simulations
ChemCollective, based out of Carnegie Mellon University, is a collection of virtual labs, learning activities, and tutorials focused on General Chemistry I and II concepts. The collection includes virtual lab problems, which simulate a wet chemistry lab; autograded lab problems; particulate level visualizations; and several other types of resources that can be combined in an online lab experience. The virtual labs allow students to select from many standard reagents and manipulate them in a process meant to represent work in a lab. Topics include stoichiometry, thermochemistry, kinetics, equilibrium, acid-base chemistry, solubility, oxidation/reduction and electrochemistry, analytical chemistry, physical chemistry, and properties of solutions. Use is free.
PhET, developed at the University of Colorado, Boulder, offers interactive simulations relevant to undergraduate courses in physics, biology, chemistry, earth science, and math. Many of these simulations have associated teacher-generated activities. (Please note: you must register to view or download these activities. If you do not register, the links appear active but do not respond.) The simulations are high quality, truly interactive, and free. An introduction is found here.
HHMI’s BioInteractive has a collection of virtual labs, including
- Bacterial Identification Virtual Lab
- Cardiology Virtual Lab
- Immunology Virtual Lab
- Neurophysiology Virtual Lab
- Stickleback Evolution Virtual Lab
- Lizard Evolution Virtual Lab
- Transgenic Fly Virtual Lab
Some include worksheets that can be used to guide student actions. The site includes other interactive media that can be adapted for an online lab, such as 3D models of fossils and viruses.
The Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College (SERC) has a robust set of resources for incorporating lab activities in online geoscience courses, including links to a variety of specific online labs that range from virtual field trips to mineral identification to simulations.
Free collection of annotated papers
If reading the primary literature and data analysis are important elements of your lab course, the resources at Science in the Classroom may be helpful. The site features annotated papers and associated teaching materials from disciplines ranging from biology (all flavors, from anatomy and physiology to biochemistry to developmental biology….) to chemistry, physics, psychology, space science, technology and engineering. Papers can be selected individually, and there are also collections of resources that focus on topical areas, such as concussions, climate change, and CRISPR.
Some instructors are figuring out creative ways to help their students get the key parts of the lab experience without having to come to the lab. A couple of examples:
- Adam List, Principal Senior Lecturer of Chemistry and director of the Organic Chemistry labs at Vanderbilt, has used his iPhone to video himself doing a couple of the experiments that his students won’t have a chance to do. He is posting the videos in short chunks (~5 minutes) on TopHat and then following up each short video with TopHat questions that help the students think about the key elements of the experiment. [See screenshots from Adam’s videos and questions below.] For other labs, the key piece is data analysis, and so Adam has shared existing data for students to interpret.
- Forrest Charnock, Senior Lecturer of Physics and director of the introductory physics labs, notes that it’s critical for students in his labs to collect and work with messy, real-world data on some labs. For those labs, he is asking students to approximate the lab experience at home, and to think through the limitations this can impose. For example, in one lab, students are building pendulums of varying length and then analyzing the motion using whatever materials and tools they have at home. A key part of the experiment is for students to think through what they need and what limitations their tools introduce. Where recreating the lab at home is not feasible (such as with electric circuit labs), he is providing the students videos of the data acquisition and the raw data. The students are then tasked with analyzing the data.
Some textbook publishers have online simulations to supplement the text. If your course has a required textbook, visit the website or call your representative to see what options you may have not wanted to use in your F2F course. For example McGraw Hill is offering free access to their virtual labs in Spring 2020 (link to their Biology labs here).
Labster has course packages for the subjects listed below. For some subjects, the options seem reasonably robust (e.g., Cellular & molecular biology), although they may not be a perfect match to your course. For other subjects (e.g., Engineering), the options are more limited. They are providing discounted pricing in response to COVID-19.
- Anatomy & Physiology
- Cellular & molecular biology
- Evolution & diversity
- Food science & nutrition
- General biology I & II
- General chemistry I & II
- General, Organic, and Biological Chemistry
- Introduction to Biology
- Organic Chemistry
The Journal of Video Experiments (JoVE) has a series of science education videos, including an encyclopedia of experiments. Entries in the encyclopedia range from videos to animations explaining a variety of experimental processes, from evaluating heat transfer of spin-and-chill to investigating single molecule adhesion by atomic force microscopy to analysis of histone antibody specificity with peptide microarrays. The Science Education resources are free until June 30, and are divided into disciplinary collections. For example, the Inorganic Chemistry collection “covers a range of inorganic chemistry protocols and concepts including air-free techniques, syntheses of transition metal based compounds, core inorganic chemistry concepts like Lewis Acid and Bases, and advanced analysis techniques including EPR spectroscopy,” while the Physics I collection “covers classical mechanics and thermodynamics discussing relevant laws and equations; every topic is presented with experiments validating theoretical hypothesis, and real world contextual examples.” There appears to be variation from subject to subject, with some collections providing more animations that illustrate theory and some collections providing videos of lab procedures as they’re actually performed.
If you’re still reading at the bottom of this very long post, please know that I would love to help you think through the choices that you’re making and find the resources you need to teach labs remotely this summer. Contact me at Cynthia.firstname.lastname@example.org.