Virtual Science Labs: Get More with Fewer Resources
Scientific laboratory courses in most schools suffer from a lack of space and funding needed to provide materials for each student. Even in college level classes, most students experience labs as a viewing only experience, which is crowded and does not allow for student engagement. Various high schools and colleges are turning to virtual labs to help replace and improve this typical lab experience.
Standard lab courses can have a follow the directions feel, that leaves even the most scientifically inquisitive student bored and under-engaged. Both students and teachers suffer from a lack of time to properly prepare and execute the lab, therefore leaving out a lot of the procedures that many argue are necessary for real scientific learning. Also, there is no real scientific discovery, as there is the pre-defined expected answer at the end of the lab. Students do not have the time or resources to make a hypothesis, follow it to the end, and then alter and repeat the experiment for different results. This essential part of the scientific method that is missing in the current pedagogy, but there is evidence that a huge change is on the horizon.
Virtual or computer simulated labs, designed specifically to supplement scientific learning are becoming a powerful tool in the education arena. Labs for all types of STEM topics have been created and are available for use online. These labs allow students to utilize technology to increase their interaction with science further. Such places as Howard Hughes Medical Institute offer free use of online virtual labs that significantly support both scientific learning and critical thinking skills. Research has shown that online virtual labs provide lower cost more contemporary content for students.
Two particular labs have proven to be especially useful as online versus traditional labs. The first is a lab allowing students to breed flies to get a particular genotype and phenotype. To do this in real life, much time and expense would be needed for the students to test and analyze many different generations of flies. With the use of the computer program, students can experiment with genetic inheritance in a much quicker time frame, think hours instead of weeks, allowing for a more in-depth study of the subject matter at hand.
The second set of labs research has shown to be beneficial are chemistry labs, where often, it is hard for students to visualize how they are getting a result due to a chemical reaction. With the use of a virtual lab to study the varying levels of the chemical process, students were better able to understand the solution by trying different options within the program. Compared to an actual lab, the virtual lab was as effective, but with a much lower cost per student ratio.
Virtual labs are the way of the future, as more and more technology is brought into the classroom. They can be incredibly supportive of the current teaching methodology if combined with proper preparation and structure.