Virtue and Virtuosity in Biology VLabs


Biology, the study of life, is a beautiful, exciting, and rapidly changing discipline. In the last 60 years, we’ve discovered the link among all living things through our growing understanding of genetics. This has opened doors for new discoveries across all of biology, from the study of cells to ecological interactions.

VLabs such as Mendellian Genetics allow students to collect data, make observations, analyze findings, and draw conclusions.

As we develop more complex knowledge, we must find new and more effective ways to teach biology. A typical biology textbook contains forty chapters, maybe more. Students and teachers alike may be overwhelmed by the amount of information in a biology course. How do you cover all the content? How do today’s science teachers achieve the ideal so beautifully articulated by the Nobel Prize winning biologist E.O. Wilson?

From the freedom to explore comes the joy or learning. From knowledge acquired by personal initiative arises the desire for more knowledge. And from the mastery of the novel and beautiful world awaiting every child comes self-confidence.

While there isn’t a single approach to good science teaching, showing students how the process of scientific discovery works is one of the best ways to light up their eyes and awaken Wilson’s “desire for more knowledge.” Evidence shows that students learn better by discovering principles the way real scientists do. How do we teach students not only science concepts, but also how to investigate the natural world and solve challenging problems?

VLab: Stream Ecology

Our biology virtual labs clarify abstract concepts in novel ways that provide a practical means of instruction. Experiments that might be dangerous, difficult, or expensive are no longer off-limits. Think of a typical “wet lab” in which students investigate osmosis. What limitations might students encounter? Will they actually see the movement of water? Will dialysis bags and solute concentrations be labeled correctly?

VLab: Membranes

By using our virtual lab on membranes, students understand how pressure, temperature, and extracellular solute concentration affect water movement through cell membranes. If students make a mistake, they simply reset the simulation. Although virtual labs do not replicate the real world exactly, they excel at presenting certain features in a controlled environment. Some experiments that would take months or years to complete can be simulated in a class period. For example, in the VLab: Disease Dynamics, students investigate how infectious diseases affect human population growth.

During traditional labs, you might notice some students feel lost and unsure of the next step. They need to practice inquiry. Virtual labs provide students with experience in a self-paced setting. Throughout these lessons, carefully selected questions help students learn the content, maintain interest, and use various cognitive skills. Students make predictions, experiment using multi-step procedures, gather and convey data visually, draw conclusions, and communicate their results.

While no one would argue that virtual labs ought to completely replace traditional labs, more and more teachers are recognizing the benefits VLabs offer, particularly as they become more sophisticated. “The idea that virtual labs are a poor substitute” for the work students will do as professionals “is not actually true anymore,” says Gerry Hanley, assistant vice-chancellor for academic technology services in the Cal State system.

Our virtual labs include biological processes ranging from cell division and genetics to photosynthesis, ecology, and evolution. Virtual labs help students grasp difficult concepts in a way that mere words or the static images cannot.

Check out the rest of our biology virtual labs:

Vlab: Enzymes
VLab: Photosynthesis
VLab: Membranes
Vlab: Microeveolution
Vlab: DNA Replication
Vlab: Cell Division
Vlab: Modern Taxonomy

We also have VLabs in Earth and Space Science, Physics, and Chemistry!

VLab: Free Fall

VLab: Free Fall



About Author

Ada Lopez

Ada’s goal is to help improve children’s lives. Her inspiration to develop technologies that enhance teaching and learning comes from her years in the classroom. Ada taught high school biology in South Florida and middle school science in North Carolina. She earned The National Braille Press Hands on Award for co-authoring Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn.


  1. This is good stuff. Virtual environments such as these not only allow learners to try and fail in a safe environment, they allow learners to reflect, review, and redo the experience.

    • Ralph Moore

      Thanks! We have over 250 individual resources in science - 65 in biology alone. And they are all free! Take a look and let us know what else you would like to see.

  2. Excellent Article, and the virtual lab concept is pretty awesome. I am excited to share this with my child, who is taking Earth and Science as her first compartmentalized science class in Elementary School in Wake County. I think a tool like this would be an awesome addition to her resources and would help in understanding the science she is studying.

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