For most science and engineering majors, introductory level labs are a rite of passage.  These labs accompany many of the courses at the 100 and 200-levels and often support the material presented in a classroom environment.

Today, not all labs are in the cookbook style, where students learn how to follow directions to reach a pre-prescribed goal.  Advances in education research have shown the effectiveness of research experiences like course-based undergraduate research experiences (also known as “CUREs”).  These labs may be designed to be more authentic and reflect specific learning dimensions.

However, more and more education is moving to an online environment today.  Flexible learning environments expand learning opportunities, break barriers in education, and create flexible options for non-traditional university students.  In the sciences, however, the lab components of courses may be difficult to reinvent in the online environment.

Do simulations and at-home lab activities provide students with comparable learning experiences to help them gain skills and advance in their course of study?  While online labs may less easily create authentic research experiences for students, they provide the skills and competencies for students to succeed.  For example, computer simulations and distance learning experiments may help students supplement the conceptual knowledge gained in lecture-based material.

Can online labs be a suitable replacement for the traditional lab bench?  This may depend on what we consider the goals of the lab course to be.  Some may consider the goal to be students learning to handle equipment – pipettes, Bunsen burners, beakers, graduated cylinders – or perform experiments like titrations or dissections.  Others may see the lab as a supplement to support concepts in the lecture component of the course.  This “hands-on” portion may be useful to instructors looking to provide case studies or help their students gain specific lab skills.

Labs are important for developing skills and knowledge.  From a practical standpoint, knowledge likely is more important than any specific laboratory skill.  Proper safety, arguably the most important hands-on skill in any lab, can be learned in many environments.  With online labs, having access to the educational process far outweighs the disadvantage of not being in a physical lab space.  It is this access to education, including lab activities, that has the potential to change lives.  Specific laboratory skills can be learned in internships or during on-the-job training.  Otherwise, most lab procedures are done once and never used again.  However, this is completely different from the status quo in STEM education.  For example, the American Chemical Society department expectations say that online labs can supplement traditional labs, but not replace them.

Are online labs opportunities to break the glassware ceiling or just a passing flame in the Bunsen burner?  Share your experiences, thoughts, ideas, and feedback in the comments below!  Look for more about STEM education next month.

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