Virtual labs can be a boon to science instruction, capturing the excitement of discovery and encouraging students to think earnestly about STEM careers. While no one would advocate working exclusively with virtual labs, they can play an important role in expanding the classroom repertory: experiments that had been too dangerous, difficult, expensive, or time-consuming are no longer off limits.
With SAS Curriculum Pathways VLabs, for example, students can learn about unstable atomic nuclei without being exposed to radioactive materials. They can perform genetic crosses without maintaining a population of mating organisms and waiting for offspring to emerge.
Moreover, for many abstract concepts, virtual labs are the only practical means of instruction: one can’t, after all, send students up in space to observe an eclipse or cause an earthquake so that they can learn the principles of plate tectonics. But virtual labs help students visualize these concepts in ways conventional materials cannot.
Finally, interactive features, animations, and immediate feedback can be the difference between comprehension and despair. That's a crucial issue when we're talking about students who might give up on STEM careers under the mistaken impression that they "can't do science." For many students, working with a virtual lab is like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time: what had been cloudy suddenly becomes clear.
By staying interested and informed through virtual labs, students can develop the foundational skills they’ll need to succeed as scientists working under real-world constraints.
A recent Los Angeles Times article clarifies the rationale for (and the impact of) virtual labs: “When we look at the rapid growth in the number of students versus science lab facilities, it's just not enough," said Gerry Hanley, assistant vice chancellor for academic technology services for the Cal State system. "Students end up taking these courses later or delaying graduation. Facilities bottlenecks are one reason we're looking at the virtual labs idea."
Hanley adds that “The idea that virtual labs are a poor substitute” for students pursuing STEM careers “is not actually true anymore.”
Initial studies support Hanley’s assertion: "Last spring, a pilot project at Cal State L.A. compared the success of students participating in traditional labs with those using an all-online format and a 'flipped' lab model, where online students met in the classroom every two weeks. Students in the flipped model maintained their interest and got better grades, the study found. Perhaps equally important, the virtual labs were able to accommodate more students and proved less expensive to operate."
SAS Curriculum Pathways offers a wide range of virtual labs to inspire your students and clarify core science concepts. Check out the partial list (below) or enter “virtual labs” in our Search feature to see the full range of our offerings.