Guidebook: Labs and Simulations in Remote Teaching

Introduction

In order to adapt labs to a remote learning environment, it’s very important to consider this question: What are the specific, demonstrable, and measurable goals for the course and, specifically, how do the labs help students meet these goals? “Typically, lab courses allow students to gain some exposure to specific techniques and instrumentation. Ultimately, however, the larger purpose of labs is to allow students to apply the process of science and develop scientific reasoning skills” (Ahuja, 2020). In a virtual environment, having clear goals helps you focus on which “learning activities should provide practice toward eventually attaining one or more of the learning objectives” (Talbert, 2020). 

When you have your learning goals set, here are some additional questions to consider: 

  • How will you demonstrate concepts to students? 
  • What techniques are critical for students to practice and which can be observed? 
  • How will students work together in conducting their lab work?  
  • How will they process and present their work? 

In other words, adapting your labs or simulations will be effective as long as there is intentional thinking around what you want students to do, how you want them to think, and what disciplinary habits you want them to adopt. 

One last note: Given remote learning and limited (or no access) to physical labspaces, you might want to reduce the number of labs that you would typically have in your course and instead focus on the crucial labs that are necessary for your students to achieve the learning goals. Again, the main point is to make your learning goals the top priority.

Mapping Goals to Tools and Techniques

Goal for Tools and Techniques
If you need to demonstrate a concept or an experiment…
  • Present it using Zoom.
  • Share a video of the experiment being conducted using Panopto and post it in Canvas.
  • Select a simulation for students to watch. (See our Additional Resources section for links to some options.)
If students need to learn laboratory or conceptual techniques…
  • Demonstrate the technique using Zoom.
  • Share a video of the technique being practiced.
  • Provide instructions for students to practice in cases where no special resources are required.
  • Select an interactive simulation for students to engage with.
If students need to work together to solve problems…
  • Create breakout rooms in Zoom.
  • Let students create their own Zoom sessions to work with their lab partners.
  • Have them collaborate using Google apps like Google Docs and Sheets.
If students need to interact with you in a small group setting in order to learn...
  • Host additional office hours for individuals and groups in place of lab time.
  • Use Zoom breakout rooms and visit the various groups as they work.
If students need to record, analyze, write up, or present data for a lab/experiment…
  • Have them record their findings in a Google Doc, Sheet, or Form.
  • Create a VoiceThread assignment for students to present their work.
  • Create group assignments in Canvas for students to submit their lab reports.

Scientific process and virtual labs

Lab classes are of course about more than a set of information; they’re also about involving students in the scientific process. That’s still possible in a remote or hybrid environment, but may need to be handled somewhat differently:

  • Hypothesis Generation: Ask students to write a literature review to help them build knowledge in the subject. As a result they also see how scholars in the field develop, research, and test their hypotheses. This activity can be paired with writing reflections on the student’s key takeaways from the experience. You could also create a structured reading guide that students can use to connect the literature (the methodology, the findings, etc.) with the concepts they’re exposed to during lectures.
  • Experimental Methods: While a physical lab space is the ideal for performing most experiments, when that’s not possible you can share a video of the experimental procedure, or use online simulations for students to watch and experiment with. Based on these videos and simulations, ask students to develop the lab protocol, perhaps accompanied by a reflection on opportunities and limitations.
  • Data Analysis: Share a sample dataset and have them analyze it. Based on their analysis, ask them to write a lab report. There are a lot of open datasets available that can help.
  • Conclusion Making: Students can synthesize their learning by writing up a summary of their experiment and analysis. Students could, for example, write a sample manuscript for a journal, or a shorter version for a sample STEM public education blog.
  • Dissemination and Communication: The online medium lends itself well to allowing students to create digital posters and/or presentations. Create a mini conference session within the course so that they can share their digital posters or presentations as one would present posters in a face to face conference.

STEM Resources for Remote Learning

The following is a curated Google Sheet with links and additional information on each of the options for different platforms that can be used for remote learning to help adapt some of your labs.

Bibliography

Ahuja, A. (2020). You had to cancel your lab course. What now? Genes to Genomes (blog). http://genestogenomes.org/guest-post-you-had-to-cancel-your-lab-course-what-now/?fbclid=IwAR1hLymYAMvWdJMwaGxzaJ6behidlji-5i4TUlQoFOC3PrdurpoNtSX5RIc

B. Loma (2020). Faculty: Best Practices for Labs & Studios. Yale Poorvu Center.  https://academiccontinuity.yale.edu/faculty/best-practices/faculty-best-practices-labs-studios

Talbert, R. (2020). Steps toward excellence: Connecting objectives and assessments with activity. Rtalbert.org. https://rtalbert.org/steps-toward-excellence-connecting-objectives-and-assessments-with-activity/