Virtual Labs in Science Class

from a lecture given by Amanda Gunning.

Why a virtual lab?

  • Online or downloaded – I recommend the downloaded version if possible since you won’t have to worry about faulty internet.
  • “Hands On” – student should still be manipulating variables, making observations, and drawing conclusions.
  • Fulfills lab requirements.
  • Provides variety to curriculum.
  • Easy way to incorporate technology and use school resources.
  • Explores complex and difficult to observe concepts in a simpler way.
  • Great way to give students lab activities when they are home-bound due to illness or are chronically absent.

Challenges to using virtual labs:

  • Availability of computers and internet access.
  • Battery-life of laptops.
  • Management issues – to get all the computers set up and ready for use cuts into class time.  If you have an IT person who doesn’t come from an education background, get to know them and learn as much as you can so that you don’t rely on them in case of a technology issue in class when they aren’t available to help. Be sensitive that they don’t always understand the time constraints and pressures related with teaching.
  • If students are sharing a computer, are they both involved or is one student taking control and the other off task?
  • Students might want to listen to music while working on the computer – this is a policy that needs to be determined by the teacher if the administration hasn’t already written a policy on that.

Preparing for a Virtual Lab

  • Plan for it! A virtual lab isn’t a free period: are you using the lab to introduce a topic, demonstrate a concept, or assess student understanding?
  • Scaffold the virtual lab! Introduce using the virtual lab as another way to experiment, explain and model the features students will manipulate, and have an associated assignment or handout.
  • Plan for discussion to make meaningful conclusions.

Great Virtual Lab Sites


6 responses to this post.

  1. Looks like Amanda and you understand quite a bit about virtual labs. In particular, no teacher should use a virtual lab without having goals for the activity.

    Most virtual labs aren’t really “labs” in the sense of being student science investigations that improve understanding of the nature of science. Therefore, your goals might be preparation for a complex hands-on lab or helping students with concepts that have been more difficult to learn.

    To stand alone, a good virtual lab should have a few important characteristics.

    1. Students should not know the outcome before doing the lab. It should be an investigation.
    2. The data should come from the material world and not be made-up or faked by using idealized equations and algorithms. The lab should expose students to the nature of science.
    3. The lab should be truly interactive. Simply picking variables (experimental parameters) is not interactive. Students should be using their own care and judgment to collect their own individual data point by point.

    Almost no virtual labs meet the above criteria and thus are not suited to be stand-alone virtual labs.

    There’s still more that you’d like to have such as ability to customize and integrate into your course, formative and summative testing built in, storage of all student work for later review, online consistent and customizable lab reports, and online support materials.

    Remote robotic labs fulfill the first two criteria above and could add the extras but fail to be truly interactive. Large online databases are similar. So far, the only technology that provides all of the above uses prerecorded real experiments.


    • Posted by Becky on April 21, 2010 at 5:41 pm

      I agree that no virtual lab is a perfect substitute for the real thing. However, coming from a Physics background, I know the power of virtual labs and simulations to show phenomena that can not be reproduced in the classroom and don’t exist on video.

      Thanks so much for the feedback!


  2. “… and don’t exist on video.”

    Ah, but that’s just the point. What if they did?

    We both know that some concepts will not work well as either hands-on labs or videos. We also know that it’s better for students to do experiments, given the time and resources — which often don’t exist — and the feasibility of running experiments.

    So, what have we?

    1. Hands-on experiments: great if done well and integrated into the course well. Problems are: time, cost, safety, and space.
    2. Simulations: good for conceptual understanding. Certainly work on cost, safety, time, and space. Problems are: lack of reality, which means that some other way must be found to provide students with understanding of the nature of science, development of scientific reasoning skills, and appreciation of the complexity and ambiguity of empirical work. Good hands-on labs do those things.
    3. Remote robotic labs and large online scientific databases: real data. Problems: limited range of science available, lack of interaction during data collection. Time, cost, safety, space all work here.
    4. Prerecorded real experiments: real data, interactive data collection, most of the benefits of hands-on labs. Problems: lack of kinesthetic learning (can’t smell the chlorine, for example) and limited experimental design capabilities — if it’s not stored already, it’s not an available option.

    As a result, I recommend a combination of 1 and 4 for lab experience. I leave 2 and 3 for concept development outside of the lab whether independently or as an augmentation before or afterward.

    Do you have specific experiments in mind in physics that you cannot do in the classroom and don’t have videos of so that you must resort to simulations?

    If you’d rather take this discussion offline, see my website for contact information:


    • Posted by Becky on April 21, 2010 at 8:25 pm

      Most experiments can be done in class, but when it comes to Modern Physics, it’s not realistic to show the students fission, fusion, or particle acceleration, all of which is too fast and too small to be observed on video as well.

      I’ll be sure to check out your site – thanks for commenting!


  3. Yes, most can. But, are most? Some require special equipment. In most cases, our prerecorded real experiment videos provide more information than the classroom version.

    For some examples. Collision labs use an airtrack, not usually available to every student. Pendulums follow the bob movement in 1/10 second intervals so that the shape of the motion, not just its period, is available. Ripple tanks won’t be possible for each student. Can you follow 100-m projectile trajectories in a classroom? How about observing Brownian motion at -70°C? Do you have oscilloscopes for all to work with sound? Even an Atwood machine is difficult to provide in volume.

    In the area of modern physics, the demand has been very small. We’ve done photoelectric effect without creating much interest. We could do Rutherford scattering, radioactive decay, types of radiation, and much more if people really were interested.

    Clearly, fission and fusion can be modeled with animations, but what are the scientific investigations students perform with them? An experiment should be an investigation. Furthermore, the animations of fission and fusion are just crude models for the sole purpose of helping students to visualize what happens and not true fully scientific views of the reactions. No way do atoms or particles look like billiard balls (if you could “look” at them).

    Were we to reproduce the actual science experiments done in modern physics well after the beginning of modern physics, few students would be ready to analyze and understand the data. The earlier ones make more sense to do. We might do Thompson’s e/m or the Millikan oil drop to find charge of an electron.

    Rather than look at animations, I’d like students to study the scientists who did the work and understand what they were doing. In many cases, they were striking out against current science opinion. If only we could impress on students what a remarkable concept the universality of gravity was in Newton’s time and how remarkable that he figured it out. It’s difficult to explain the ultraviolet catastrophe and its incredible resolution to high school students (and even lots of college students). A really good story may do it.

    As you may gather, I really love science. With chemistry degrees from Caltech and Columbia University, I did a postdoc and became a professor at a large NE university. Now, I’m working to find ways to deliver great science experience to students everywhere, even in the poorest schools. I’m having great fun.


    • Posted by Becky on April 22, 2010 at 8:15 pm

      I like the idea of studying the students and the research they were doing – I just finished the book “Uncle Tungsten” which is along those lines. I’ve been designing Physics activities/labs out of household good and other things that are cheap and easy to get a hold of. It’s fun to be creative with the presentation of Physics content!


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