Online Science Labs: The Best Way to Learn Science is to Do Science


Shannon McGurk, Director of Distance Learning, Carolina Biological Supply Company

| No Comments | | Leave a comment


With one-third of all higher education students enrolled in at least one online course, it is apparent that online learning is a major part of the future of education. We can understand the challenge college and university science departments face of providing quality in-home labs that offer students an experience equal to traditional, on-campus labs.  Colleges and universities continuously look for ways to offer students more opportunities for a better experience with science education at a distance, away from the traditional lab space. Regardless of course delivery mode, the best way to learn science is to do science.

At home lab kits and digital labs can be a great solution for providing high-quality science learning and experiences for students taking lab science courses at a distance. One of the main goals, whether through hands-on or digital lab experiences, should be to enhance the opportunity for higher-level thinking through real-world application and creative inquiry.

A combination of hands-on experiments supplemented by digital content provides a solid approach when designing online science labs.  Some tips to consider for implementation:

  • Use visuals and videos—Providing short pre-lab videos, procedural videos for different activities, and multiple visuals and images throughout different parts of the course are small things that can keep students engaged. Let students know what they’ll be doing and what they need to look out for throughout the course. This also increases your presence as the instructor and helps students feel more connected.
  • Make time and be available—Giving students access to you via email, and even phone, and promptly responding to their questions is the most challenging, but one of the most important, aspects of online teaching. A good strategy is to clearly state a response window in the course materials – for example, within 48 hours M-F – so that students know what to expect in terms of communication.
  • Discussion boards—These keep students interacting and more connected with their classmates and instructors. Students can respond to others’ answers and feed off shared ideas.
  • Change it up for academic integrity Changing the order of experiments for students in a class, and between terms, will help keep student data real. Add other variables to the experiments. Have part of the class test one set of variables and the other part of the class test the second set. Combine the results at the conclusion of the class. This will increase the data set as well as the educational value of the experiment—and keep your students interested in the work they’re doing.
  • Safety—- Design and test procedures that can be safely performed in a non-lab setting. Provide personal protective equipment (PPE) with every kit. Offer proper instruction and appropriate warning about potential safety concerns and procedures.

When evaluating lab kits for the best fit for individual online science courses, Jessica Brown, Professor at Central Carolina Community College, advised that these criteria be included in the evaluation:

  • Engage students’ imagination and encourage their desire to learn
  • Include real-world topics that resonate with students
  • Provide a level of scientific rigor that is commensurate with course objectives
  • Teach the scientific method in every lab
  • Improve students’ science literacy, especially for non-majors courses
  • Are customizable to meet specific course criteria

Recently, Jessica Brown and colleagues John Vanden Brooks, Professor from Arizona State University, and Kelly Thrippleton-Hunter, Professor from SNHU, had a longer discussion about distance learning, lab kits, and digital lab solutions in a webinar “How To Teach Biology Online With Lab Kits” sponsored by OLC and Carolina Distance Learning. In the webinar, they share how they were able to successfully convert their traditional science lab courses to online lab courses using lab kits. You can view the full recorded webinar here

This webinar was focused on Biology labs, though many science instructors may find the discussion valuable.  In addition, a webinar on Anatomy and Physiology, also sponsored by OLC and Carolina Distance Learning, will be offered in February.  Keep an eye out for details through email communications and on our website!

Shannon McGurk is the Director of Distance Learning at Carolina Biological Supply Company.  With Master’s degrees in both Biology and Education, Shannon joined Carolina Biological Supply Company in 2015 with more than 15 years of higher education experience. She has been active in the online learning community for more than 10 years. Her experience includes curriculum development, instructional design, teaching, and compliance and accreditation.  Shannon will be a panelist at the upcoming OLC Research Summit: Online STEM Education, at Accelerate 2019, and would love to connect with you there!

Leave a Reply