As we settle into 2018, the shock of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) has started to wear off. NGSS offers a shift from textbook learning and rote memory, returning students back to deep meaningful investigations in the science classroom. It encourages schools to reach out to the community and industry for guest speakers and projects to show students the types of jobs available to them and the training needed for those jobs. Innovation drives the US economy and statistics show that we’ve started to lag behind other countries. NGSS encourages students to become thinkers, tinkers, and explorers. By allowing science classrooms to again become a place for investigations, students can go back to pondering, exploring, planning, creating, modeling, looking for patterns and trends, and watching a design fail miserably and starting all over again.
Technology is now becoming an even more useful tool for teachers and students. Online labs offer schools and teachers convenience and savings, reducing the time and the expense that purchasing, maintaining, and preparing lab materials requires. In elementary classrooms, students begin learning that they can apply technology for their own education, as well as for fun and entertainment. This is where virtual science labs fit in. Elementary labs use cartoons, bright colors, music, and animation to engage and develop the scientific inquiry mind-set of asking questions, using models, interpreting data and conveying a conclusion, and analyzing a solution.
By middle and high school, online labs are increasing in depth and technicality. Textbook companies have jumped into this style of education as well, by offering a wide range of animations to illustrate key topics in each chapter. Many high-quality simulations and virtual science labs can be found online, including:
- University of Colorado’s PhET Interactive Simulations
- Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s BioInteractive site
- Pivot Interactions
And in online courses like those from Edgenuity®, students participate in virtual labs, so let’s walk through what a typical online lab experience for them is like. The student logs in to the LMS and clicks on her Biology class, which then opens up to the next assignment. In our scenario, that will be the Starch Virtual Lab. This lab activity starts with 3 empty test tubes, which are first filled with 10 drops of 3 different solutions, and then 10 drops of Lugol’s solution. Students fill the test tubes by clicking on the pipette each time, so there’s no spill, no mess, no stained fingers or clothing, and best of all, no broken glassware that could injure someone (and now needs to be replaced). Another mouse click shakes the test tubes and the solutions quickly change color, indicating the presence of starch in one solution. The virtual lab speeds up reaction times and gives students a prepared data table to record observations. Students appreciate the instant feedback and an error-free lab simulation, which are both perfect for non-science majors who need to learn the topic but not in-depth lab techniques.
Virtual science labs and interactive simulations also create new opportunities. They help students in underfunded schools participate in advanced reasoning without needing a formal science lab or access to water or lab safety equipment. These labs are also ideal for struggling learners and those with disabilities. Students are given the opportunity to explore at their own pace, without the peer pressure often found in small-group settings. They can go back, reread directions for clarification, and identify and look up key vocabulary. Students participate in authentic learning as they manipulate variables and record data and begin to analyze and formulate conclusions and think about new ways to tweak the simulation. As a result, students become fully engaged in the concept and are not constrained by a bell signaling the end of the class. One 11th-grade homeschooled student said, “I like the convenience of the labs and the fact that students can redo or repeat the labs if they are unclear or having a difficult time understanding the concepts.”
The job market today’s students will graduate into is a challenging one. Employers expect young adults with increasingly specific skills, so students need to gain experience using technology to gather and assimilate data, and then translate it using logical sequences to frame an argument, creatively solve a problem, communicate, and sell a product. Virtual science labs can help you offer your students all of this both safely and inexpensively, without sacrificing quality education.
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can offer your students virtual labs, and other interactive activities available through online and blended learning, click here for more information.