Five ways to engage students using virtual lab experiences

Yasmin Wong
March 7, 2022

The recent global pandemic has resulted in reduced accessibility to teaching labs for educators and students alike. The COVID-19 lockdown restrictions prevented many from setting foot in a practical lab for the better part of 18 months. 

However, it has also created the opportunity for real innovation in science teaching. Even as parts of the world transition back to 'normal', restrictions on travel and general COVID anxiety mean there is a need for hybrid teaching of practical sessions and remote learning. From virtual 3D labs to virtual crime scenes, mixed reality to 360-degree cameras, we explore examples of immersive virtual lab environments educators from our partner universities have created to engage students in remote, in-person and hybrid learning experiences.

1. 3D virtual reality labs

Problem: Transforming a five day lab-based course that explores cutting-edge molecular biology techniques

The Molecular Methods course at the University of Glasgow explores cutting-edge molecular biology techniques used in industry and involves lectures and lab sessions to be taken over the course of five days. In response to the pandemic, the course required a major redesign to be delivered online.

Solution:  A 3D Virtual Lab Environment and virtual lab book

A five-chapter ‘Moodle Book’ was created to reflect the five days of work. Worksheets, videos, quizzes and LabSims within the course allowed students to follow the experiments in their usual, in-person context. To further support the students' understanding, a virtual lab simulation app was embedded into the final day of the Moodle book.

The app - created in collaboration with Sublime Digital - was modelled on a laboratory at the university. It allowed teaching staff to demonstrate live experiments in a 3D digital lab environment via Zoom.

Two views of the 3D virtual lab environment created by the University of Glasgow. Left - An example of lab safety. Right - A lab experiment demonstrated in a virtual fume cupboard.

Results: Increased student confidence and understanding

Student feedback supported the use of the virtual lab experience, with students appreciating the ability to see demonstrations and ask questions in real time. Students were more confident and understanding of the processes involved in planning and performing their own experiments despite working remotely.

The University of Glasgow has also taken these innovative approaches off-campus. Teaching Innovation Award 2021 winner Dr. Gabriella Rodolico and colleagues in the School of Education incorporated virtual reality technology to teach science to primary students and to train teachers.

2. Mixed reality visualisations

Problem: Delivering practical chemistry to international and shielding students

When the pandemic hit, the Chemistry team at Queen Mary University London was tasked with identifying innovative approaches to deliver practical chemistry lab experiences. These had to be inclusive of international students and students who were shielding, and could not rely solely on in-person lab sessions.

Solution: Mixed reality lab demonstrations using Hololens headsets

The novel approach of using mixed reality was adopted to achieve greater engagement and immersion. Academics demonstrated chemistry experiments in real time whilst wearing a Hololens headset, which students viewed through their own devices, allowing them to see the experiments through the demonstrator's eyes. They were encouraged to focus on understanding key techniques and skill development, rather than just getting the correct answers.

 Left - Staff member wearing the Hololens headset in the lab. Right - The view of the headset wearer as seen by students on their devices.
Left - Staff member wearing the Hololens headset in the lab. Right - The view of the headset wearer as seen by students on their devices.

The labs were supplemented with secondary academics running Mentimeter quizzes and Q+As and monitoring the student chat. Furthermore, the lab manual was converted to feature more images and diagrams to reduce cognitive overload. Skills-based learning was also supplemented, using LabSims and Smart Worksheets to solidify understanding.

Results: Engaging and effective lab experiences for remote learners

Student perceptions of the approach were highly positive, with 89% agreeing the Hololens was effective for delivering virtual chemistry. Anecdotally, students described the sessions as engaging.

Student attitudes to the mixed reality sessions were extremely positive, with 84% agreeing it improved their understanding of the techniques.
Dr. Lesley Howell - School of Physical and Chemical Sciences, Queen Mary University London

3. Live remote lab sessions with 360 degree cameras

Problem: Reduced school-wide lab capacity

The pandemic restrictions and requirements for social distancing meant the capacity of labs at the University of Westminster were drastically reduced. Three teaching labs in the School of Life Sciences, which previously had been able to accommodate over 300 students, were now limited to just 48 students. Therefore, the department had to create a way for undergraduate and postgraduate students across the school to develop the necessary lab skills required for their degree and future employment.

A view of one of the teaching labs at the University of Westminster

Solution: Interactive live-stream super-labs using 360 degree cameras

The department designed a series of super-labs where students were able either in-person or online via an interactive live stream using SMOTS cameras. The labs focussed on delivery the key psycho-motor skills and  Each super-lab was supplemented with pre-sessional LabSims to cover lab safety and concepts relating to the superlab.

Students who participated via live-stream had a dedicated tutor to answer questions. They also were given access to LabSims so they could carry out virtual lab experiments that complimented those being done by students in the on-site labs.

Results: Supported lab skill development for in-person and remote students alike

Students responded that the live stream was valuable as it allowed them to attend the sessions from a safe space. The LabSims also had an impact, helping students feel more prepared for the practical science skills they encountered during the lab. One academic noted how impressed they were with their student group's pipetting techniques after completing the LabSim.

4. Collaborative experiments using lab casting

Problem: Crowded and poorly visible lab demonstrations

The University of Birmingham Collaborative Teaching Laboratory (CTL) aims to provide enhanced, personalised learning experiences through the use of educational technology. One challenge the department wanted to address was the personalisation of labs beyond the traditional use of audio-visual equipment, and to tackle the common issue of student’s crowded round one lab demonstrator, unable to get a fair view of techniques being displayed.

Solution: Labcasting model with moveable webcams

Virtual camera software with moveable webcams was set up to provide collaborative group sessions and one-to-one teaching that could be achieved remotely and socially distanced. This approach was adopted in multiple departments across the university.

School of Bioscience used the model to split student groups into remote and in-lab members, with in-lab members carrying out physical experiments, and remote members assisting with instructions and data analysis. Utilising split screen, picture-in-picture and other ‘scenes’ offered remote students the best viewing experience of the practical experiments.

The School of Chemistry broadcast demonstrations from a fume cupboard directly to each individual student's workbench. This created an almost ‘one-to-one’ experience, with students able to call the academics from their own station with questions or for advice.

Student sitting at their own lab bench watching a lab demonstration from across the room on their computer monitor.

Results: Community building among students and meaningful interactions

Both staff and students provided positive feedback, and expansion means now all 540 lab based PC’s can be functioning labcasting stations, which opens up the potential for new activities and approaches. There was even evidence of community building and team interactions within the remote sessions.

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5. Virtual crime scenes using Adobe Captivate

Problem: Replacing an on-campus crime scene house for Forensics students

When Forensic Science students at De Montfort University were unable to use the on-campus crime scene house facility for a large practical element of their course, academic staff were required to provide an alternative learning experience. An authentic activity was needed to align with the Crime Scene Investigation component within the course accreditation, as awarded by the Chartered Society of Forensic Sciences.

Solution: An immersive, remote, virtual crime scene

A 360 degree camera was used to take images of the on-site crime scene facilities. Using Adobe captivate software, they transformed the images into an immersive virtual crime scene which students could access remotely via their VLE.  Students had a 360 degree view of the scene and were able to interact with the crime scene through embedded hotspots, which provided questions that probed their knowledge.

Image of the virtual crime house created on Adobe Captivate.

Results: An inclusive remote resource for practical forensics sessions

As both written and audio instructions were incorporated, the activity was perceived to be highly inclusive to those students with learning difficulties. Results from a feedback survey revealed over 90% of students found the software easy to use, and 100% found it to be engaging and beneficial to their learning. With the shift back to in-person teaching, the tool is now to be modified to act as a resource for first-year students, to help alleviate nerves before visiting the crime scene house in-person. 

These innovations by educators demonstrate how immersive technology can enhance learning experiences for students. Steps that can be taken to increase student engagement in face-to-face, remote and hybrid environments are:

  1. Using immersive virtual environments to improve visualisation of lab demonstrations and the key skills and techniques.
  2. Creating opportunities for collaboration between remote and in-person students.
  3. Provide platforms for students to communicate and ask questions during demonstrations and exercises.
  4. Incorporate prompts and quizzes to promote active learning.
  5. Offer interactive and accessible activities that offer students opportunities to prepare and build confidence.

Do you have an innovative approach that can improve student engagement in hybrid teaching and learning? Share with our community on social media using #LearnSciCommunity or get in touch at to explore opportunities for digital learning experiences in your department.