Expanding Access to STEM Degrees through use of Online Science Labs

Concurrent Session 1
Equity and Inclusion

Brief Abstract

A major barrier to delivering online science degrees is the laboratory component, which until recently has been extremely challenging to deliver online. Recent innovations in curriculum design and virtualisation are changing this landscape. This conversation engages participants in exploring the benefits, challenges, and successes of building online science programs.


Dr. Vanmali has been a science educator for more than 15 years, teaching classes as small as ten students and as large as 500. In all settings, her goal is to help students master content in a meaningful way that enables them to retain and use the information. To that end, she creates and seeks out innovative approaches to teaching that both engage and inspire student learning. Dr. Vanmali has held positions in the School of Life Sciences and the Provost's Office at Arizona State University, where she worked on curriculum, course development and reform, faculty professional development, and building interdisciplinary online science courses. At the University of Texas-Austin, she served as the Executive Director of the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science (TIDES), where she worked with faculty and colleagues on faculty development, freshmen research initiatives, curriculum development, and other science education initiatives. Currently, she is the Program Director for Sciences at Grand Canyon University, focused on curriculum building and reform, faculty development, and other science learning-related efforts, including online science learning.
Sam Butcher is an educational technologist, biomedical scientist and pharmacologist whose career has covered partnership work in both healthcare and education. After starting his career working in partnership with healthcare trusts in the UK to improve patient outcomes and reduce expenditure, Sam went back to his scientific roots, joining Labster in Copenhagen to work closely with universities across Europe and America to revolutionise the way we teach science. Sam is a frequent addition to panel discussions on science education, innovation in teaching and learning and the educational applications of virtual reality and has provided consultations on immersive technology to government educational departments, market research organisations, universities and businesses.

Extended Abstract

The recent and dramatic rise in the number of fully online degree programs has gone a significant way toward addressing a major challenge facing higher education--access to high quality higher education for those not able to attain a degree via the traditional brick and mortar model.

Expense, family and work commitments, and long distances prohibit many from studying degrees they wish to in a traditional university setting.The advent of online programs has ameliorated some of these problems, enabling individuals to study via an education model that is more suitable for their life circumstances.

Unfortunately, a gap still exists within the sciences where, for many reasons, science programs have not been brought online. Globally, there is unilateral agreement that there is a shortfall of students choosing education pathways in STEM subject areas. Based on current numbers of science graduates, it is projected that there will be far greater demand than supply of science professionals in the future, professionals who will be needed to understand and address the problems of our planet: global and personal health, food and water security, biosecurity, industrial and engineering advancements, and environment management.

One factor restricting the supply of students into the STEM education pipeline is limitation of higher education science degrees to individuals who can be physically present on campus to access laboratory teaching and resources. In this way, science education remains closed to those who cannot commit to full or part-time presence on a university campus to enable them to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in a scientific discipline.  

Acknowledging the current lack of online science programs, some institutions are working to change the landscape. This conversation will engage OLC participants in the benefits, challenges, successes, and opportunities of online science learning in general, and online science labs specifically. As a group, we will explore:

  • The rationale & the need for putting science courses online

  • How online labs are used within courses

  • The benefits

  • The challenges

  • What to look for when searching for an online lab solution

  • How to maximise learning opportunities when using an online delivery method for lab courses

  • What role technology plays in delivering online lab courses

  • What’s currently missing from online lab offerings

  • How the impact of online labs, and online lab courses can effectively be assessed


Engaging Questions for discussion: Our questions are designed to be progressive. That is, each question builds on the previous one, enabling development of shared definitions among the group as a foundation for deeper conversation.    

  1. Why have you put science classes online? (Traditional pedagogists say it can’t be done well.)

  2. How have you used online labs in your courses?

    1. Potential follow-up questions:

      1. For which courses have you used online labs?

      2. How long?

      3. What kinds of online labs?

  3. What are the benefits?

    1. What level/quality of evidence exists to support the statements of these benefits?

  4. What are the challenges?

    1. How will you overcome these?

  5. What do you look for when choosing online labs for your courses?

    1. Potential follow-up questions:

      1. Essential characteristics?

      2. Preferred modes?

      3. Structure?

  6. Once you’d identified what you were looking for from online labs, what were your options? (creating the content vs choosing a provider/partner?)

    1. Potential follow-up questions:

      1. What were your options for delivery method? (lab kit vs. virtual vs. remote)

      2. What were the advantages/disadvantages of each

      3. How did you make the final decision?

  7. What is missing from current online lab offerings?

    1. Potential follow-up questions:

      1. What could improve them?

      2. Why? And how?

  8. How do you incorporate labs into courses to maximize learning opportunities?

    1. Potential follow-up questions:

      1. What structure do you use? I.e., are there pre-lab questions? Post-lab? Where in the learning process do labs fall?

      2. How many labs are incorporated for one course? What are the deciding factors for this?

      3. What would you like to do that you aren’t doing yet? Why?

  9. How do you assess the impact of this teaching model?

    1. Potential follow-up questions:

      1. What are the results to date?

      2. What approaches have others taken?