Do we still need virtual labs? Teaching practical science in a post-COVID world

Yasmin Wong
July 28, 2022

In 2020, universities across the world were forced to change the delivery of practical science education. Labs were closed or had drastically reduced capacities, and hands-on practical work was limited. Educators had to rally, relying on virtual lab simulations, recorded video demonstrations and remote experiments.

Although these resources - including our own LabSims and Smart Worksheets - provided a practical learning environment when there was no alternative, we're aware that practical teaching labs are invaluable and needed to return as soon as was safe to do so.

So do we still need virtual lab solutions?  In the most recent QAA Benchmark Statements for Chemistry and Forensic Scienceaccessibility and flexibility were described as distinctive features required for these courses. The statements stressed the need to ensure students are offered learning and assessment opportunities that are equally accessible to them.

Here we explore three reasons why practical labs are irreplaceable, and three ways virtual lab solutions can work alongside them to create an enhanced learning experience.

1. Real practical labs develop real practical skills

There’s no doubt about it, practical science courses need practical teaching labs. Hands-on practical experience forms an essential part of scientific courses, and allows students to develop the necessary skills for careers both in industry and academia. The practical and fine-motor skills required for laboratory work are difficult to gain completely through virtual methods. Teaching labs enable learning-by-doing, for which there is really no replacement.

Virtual labs can help prepare and excite students for their hands-on labs

Preparation can go a long way towards ensuring students are really engaging with their practical labs. Many science students have varying levels of previous lab experience prior to entering higher education, and pre-sessional lab exercises can help level the playing field. This helps ensure all students are ready to actively participate in the experiments. 

This is supported by educational research conducted by our partners - such as the recent study from George-Williams et al. The findings showed that LabSims had a positive impact on the learning experiences of the majority of students, helping to ease them into laboratory environments, and allowing them to make use of feedback once they’re there. 

“Students were generally found to be less anxious and more excited to attend the laboratories, and they frequently utilized their experiences with the simulations during the in-laboratory class time.”
Quote from George-Williams et al. (2022)

2. Being part of a lab team is an essential experience

Of course, there’s more to teaching labs than the experiments. The surrounding experience develops all kinds of transferable skills that apply in nearly any workplace a student may find themselves working after graduation, science-based or otherwise.

Students start learning to be a good labmate, with teamwork and problem-solving from day one. In the first lab, chances are they won’t know the student(s) they’re paired with. But after a brief introduction, they must start working together to negotiate what may be a complex series of tasks. Even when students are working on their own, effective time management and task prioritisation are required to thrive in a lab environment.

Virtual labs can improve confidence and enhance communication

Virtual labs won’t be the only source of a student’s ability to communicate and co-operate. However, they can offer more understanding and knowledge of experimental design and set-up. This helps them not only be more efficient with their fellow lab mates and other lab staff, but also allows them to be more confident problem solvers.

At the University of Nottingham, Dr. Anna Maria Piccinini incorporated LabSims as part of a wider resource named ‘LabShots’ which helped postgraduate research students feel more confident discussing the techniques they were using in the labs.

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3. Labs are where theory comes to life

Let’s not forget that teaching labs can be interesting and enjoyable! It’s one thing to read about an experiment online or in a textbook. It’s another thing to make it really happen with your own hands, seeing the results unfold in front of you.

The sense of agency is invigorating, and the experience can deepen understanding of a topic, especially if the labs are presented as problem-solving challenges which heighten the discovery aspects and highlight real-world applications.

Virtual labs offer continuous learning with interactive visualisations and simulations

A virtual lab solution, both a simulation or a digital worksheet, can help consolidate learning beyond the lab. The theoretical science will unfold before them in their teaching labs, but finer details and data analysis can continue to enhance the learning experience.

Students may find the visualisations found in simulations and animations help them bridge their understanding about the scientific results seen in practical experiments, and the underlying mechanisms and processes that cause them.

So do we still need virtual lab solutions? 

Alongside core skills gained in a real environment, digital technologies can and should be used to increase the accessibility, effectiveness and efficiency of hands-on practicals. Virtual lab solutions should not replace real labs, but enhance them. Using both these approaches side-by-side creates more enjoyable and engaging experiences for both educators and students. 

If you would like to learn more about the different ways virtual lab solutions can be incorporated into your course and enhance your practical lab sessions - book a demo with our team.