Science labs often are either integrated components of larger lecture courses (lab sections) or smaller, self-contained courses. Either way, it’s worth defining what you want a lab to achieve before you select an online alternative.

Here are three possible scenarios based on lab focus. If your labs combine these scenarios, you could likewise combine recommendations — keeping in mind the appropriate time commitment for the combined activities.

Learning Techniques

If the focus is on learning techniques and their application to specific experimental situations, consider having students engage in online simulations that may cover at least portions of a protocol, if not the whole thing.

  • Harvard’s LabXchange has a suite of lab simulations with assessments that focus on basic molecular biology techniques.
  • MERLOT offers a collection of virtual labs in several science disciplines.
  • PHET offers interactive simulations that allow students to vary parameters.

Many textbooks also list interactive, lab-based resources.

Consider having your students watch videos of experiments. Ask them to first make predictions and then discuss the results.

Interpreting Experimental Data

If the focus is on interpreting experimental data, consider using datasets from published literature aligned with the experiments students would have encountered in the lab, along with developed problem sets that focus on interpreting the data.

You could also intersperse the experimental protocols with questions that explore the reasons behind specific steps. In place of actually performing the experiment, students can gain a critique-based understanding of the method followed by data interpretation.

You could give students a random sequence of steps in the experimental methodology, and ask them to arrange the steps in the correct logical order. This requires students to critically understand why each step has to come before the next in a protocol.

You could also give students a blank step to fill in for themselves once they identify which step is missing. Here’s an example from LabXchange. (Select “Design” from the “Context” menu.)

Project-based Lab Research

If the focus is on project-based lab research (as is often the case in lab courses) your students have already been working on their projects since the start of the term. They may have a capstone assignment in the form of a final paper, grant application and/or poster that describes their work, with both context and future directions defined.

Consider asking your students to switch to the current capstone assignment with an emphasis on interpreting the data they have already gathered — or if they have not generated their own data yet, focus on having them predict their experimental outcomes and design the next experimental steps in detail.

Divide the rest of the semester into draft submissions of capstone sections. This will allow you to give formative feedback and enable your students to experience experimental design, further hypothesis building, and predictive data analysis. This approach aligns especially well with a written capstone styled like a grant application.

Modified with permission from The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University.

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