Online Biology Labs: Yes We Can!

Concurrent Session 3

Brief Abstract

We will explore the promise and prospects for effective, free or low cost online college life science labs. Many institutions are now offering fully online life science classes with labs. Can the lab portions of these classes be truly effective? Bring questions, ideas, resources, or curiosity to this conversation.




Michael Plotkin is a plant biologist and co-editor of the MERLOT Biology board. He has been involved in biology education, including online teaching for years and years, and has recently adopted OER resources. He teaches at Mt. San Jacinto College in southern California.
Curriculum Vitae: James Enderby Bidlack   Career Objective: Academic position in plant biology with an emphasis in physiology and anatomy.   Education   Ph.D., Iowa State University, Plant Physiology Major, Summer 1990. M.S., University of Arkansas, Agronomy, Crop Physiology Option, Summer 1986. B.S., Purdue University, Agronomy, Soil & Crop Option, Spring 1984.   Teaching and Research Experience   August 1990 - present. Assistant (8/90) to Associate (8/98) to Professor (8/02), Biology Department, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond, Oklahoma. Responsible for teaching general biology, plant biology, plant physiology, plant anatomy, and molecular cell physiology. Duties also include instruction of students involved in undergraduate research and supervision of Master's Theses.   July 1986-August 1990. Research Assistant, Agronomy Department, Iowa State Univer­sity, Ames, Iowa. Responsible for forage greenhouse experiments, selected labora­tory equipment, and computer maintenance. Supervised and assisted in fiber, digestibility, and carbohydrate analyses of forage samples. Assisted in plot maintenance and evaluation of biomass and corn silage projects. Provided supervision of up to five hourly workers per day.   June 1984-July 1986. Research Assistant, Agronomy Department, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas. Responsible for growth chamber and local field plot soybean experiments and laboratory equipment. Assisted in plot main­tenance and application of chemicals to soybean, cotton, and rice field trials located through­out the state.   December 1985-May 1986. Laboratory Instructor, Agronomy Department, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas.   January 1983-May 1984. Lecture Demonstrator, Help Lab Instructor, and Tutor, Chemistry Department, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.   Technical Skills   Biochemical techniques including protein purification, electrophoresis, spectrophoto­metric enzyme assays, and enzyme characterization. Chemical techniques for preparation of simple organics as well as wet-chemistry and spectral techniques for their qualitative analyses. Computer literacy in Basic, DOS, Fortran, Mainframe SAS, MS-Windows, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT (for Workstation and Server), and many software packages includ­ing Crosstalk, dBase, Excel, Freelance, FrontPage, Harvard Graphics, Lotus 1-2-3, Multimate, MSTAT, Outcome Advisor, PC-SAS, PhotoDelux, PowerPoint, Procomm, SigmaPlot, Word, WordPerfect, and hardware driver programs for Digital Cameras, External Drives, and Scanners. Field, greenhouse, and growth chamber experience in establishment, maintenance, and harvest of alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, bromegrass, chickpea, corn, cotton, cowpea, crambe, gamagrass, orchardgrass, pigeon pea, red clover, rice, sorghum, soybean, sweet basil, switchgrass, and tall fescue. Microcomputer maintenance and networking for IBM compatible (386, 486, and Pentium) systems. Experience including set-up, repair, and interfacing to equipment as well as software and hardware use. Molecular techniques including library plating and screening with hybridized probes, large-scale extraction and purification of DNA from bacteriophage, digestion of purified DNA with restriction enzymes, southern hybridization, preparation of single-stranded template DNA, and DNA sequencing. Technical equipment operation including scanning electron microscopy, spectrophotometry (visible, UV, scanning, single beam, and double beam), GC, GLC, HPLC, atomic emission, atomic absorption, IR, and specific ion electrodes.   Professional Society Memberships   Alpha Chi Sigma, American Associ­ation of University Professors, Beta Beta Beta Honor Society, Botanical Society of America, Gamma Sigma Delta, Mortar Board Honor Society, Oklahoma Academy of Science, Plant Growth Regulation Society of America, Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith, Who's Who in Science and Engineering.   Recent Professional Activities Representing UCO at the Local and National Level April 2013 Attended MERLOT/ET4Online International Conference, Las Vegas, NV April 2012 Presented paper at the MERLOT International Conference, Las Vegas, NV July 2011              Presented paper at the MERLOT / Emerging Technologies Conference, San Jose, CA July 2010              Presented paper at the MERLOT International Conference (via Internet), San Jose, CA Aug 2006              Presented paper at the MERLOT International Conference, Ottawa, Canada Aug 2003              Presented paper at the MERLOT International Conference, Vancouver, Canada Sept 2002             Presented papers at the MERLOT International Conference, Atlanta, GA Aug 2001              Presented paper at the MERLOT International Conference, Tampa, FL March 1998          Participated in USDA-ARS National Program Review of El Reno Research Station Sept 1997             Met with the Acting U.S. Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture Jan 1996               Served as ILI peer reviewer for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, VA   Recent Honors and Awards   April 2012 Student Organization Advisor of the Year for the UCO TriBeta Biology Club April 2012 House Cup Recipient, as part of the MERLOT Biology Editorial Board Team Feb 2006              Outstanding Graduate from Univ Arkansas Dept Crop, Soil, & Environ Sciences Aug 2005              Co-recipient of Neely Excellence in Teaching Award October 2004       Professional Publications and Grants Award from UCO Research Office June 2002             National Recognition from Presbyterian Assoc. Sci. Tech. Christian Faith March 2002          Merit Credit Awards for Service and Teaching from UCO Faculty Nov 2001              Professional Publications Award from UCO Research Office   Publications: A total of 1 textbook, 25 refereed publications, 12 government documents / regional reports, and 75 non-refereed publications and abstracts. Recent refereed publications include: Bidlack, J.E., and S.H. Jansky. 2018. Stern's Introductory Plant Biology, Fourteenth Edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies. Bidlack, J.E., and S.H. Jansky. 2014. Stern's Introductory Plant Biology, Thirteenth Edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies. Bidlack, J.E., and S.H. Jansky. 2011. Stern's Introductory Plant Biology, Twelfth Edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies. Stern, K.R., J. Bidlack, and S. Jansky. 2008. Introductory Plant Biology, Eleventh Edition. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies. Bidlack, J.B., and J.E. Bidlack. 2014. Effect of jasmonic acid on biomass and enzyme activity in sorghum and switchgrass. UCO Journal of Undergraduate Research 1:20-24.   Bidlack, J.E., A. Middick, D. Shantz, C.T. MacKown, R.D. Williams, and S.C. Rao. 2006. Weed control in a pigeon pea and wheat cropping system. Field Crops Res. 96:63-70.   Bidlack, J.E., and P.M. Silverman. 2004. An active type IV secretion system encoded by the F plasmid sensitizes Escherichia coli to bile salts. J. Bacteriol. 186:5202-5209.   Rao, S.C., C.T. MacKown, and J.E. Bidlack. 2002. Biomass and nitrogen traits of summer pigeon peas and winter wheat grown for three rotations in containers. Comm. Soil Sci. Plant Anal. 33:897-912.   Names of Students Involved in Graduate and Undergraduate Projects from 1990 to 2018: A total of 20 graduate and 100+ undergraduate students.                                  External Fund Acquisitions for Undergraduate Education and Research   Bidlack, J.E.  2010.  Biofuel Crop Pest Resistance.  Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education (OSRHE), Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), and the National Science Foundation (NSF).  Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Program Award in the amount of $4,140 from OSRHE, EPSCoR, and NSF.   Bidlack, J.E. 2000-2002. Oklahoma Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST) and United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Internships: USDA-ARS-UCO Collaboration. Award included $23,000 from OCAST and $23,000 from the USDA.   Bidlack, J.E. 1993-1995. United States Department of Agriculture. Use of chickpea [Cicer arietinum (L.)] and pigeon pea [Cajanus cajan (L.)] in wheat - legume cropping systems. USDA Grant Number 93-37311-9580. Award included $48,990 for research on use of tropical legumes in wheat - legume cropping systems.    
Crystal Peirce is an instructor of biology at Harper College. Crystal has 10 years of experience in online science education, including both online and hybrid course design. She is a member of the biology editorial board for MERLOT and a peer reviewer of high-quality online materials that can be adapted for a wide variety of educational uses.

Extended Abstract

Recent years have seen a rapid expansion of fully online biology (and other life science) courses at colleges and universities. For example, the Chancellor of the California Community College system (the largest higher education system in the world) identified online offerings as a central “pillar” to help maintain financial health and extend the accessibility of higher education.


The challenge of creating online labs has engaged faculty and instructional designers. Most of the focus has been on non-majors biology courses, where there is a greater potential for labs that do not require equipment, dangerous reagents, or sophisticated lab techniques. Online labs must be substantially equivalent to the on campus labs students traditionally experience in biology courses. A number of companies have produced support materials to assist in this endeavor, including virtual labs, interactive lab demonstrations and simulations, digital lab notebooks, and lab kits.


The big questions include:

  1. Can online labs provide an excellent lab experience for biology students.
  2. Can effective online biology labs be offered that are free or low cost?
  3. If these goals are possible, what are the best strategies to achieve these goals?


In this conversation, we will explore the promise and prospects for effective, free or low cost online college labs in life science courses.


We will explore online activities that can engage students working online in inquiry based lab experiences? Bring your questions, ideas, resources, or curiosity to this conversation.