Teaching labs for students in STEM courses
While the online environment may not be the traditional way of teaching labs in STEM courses, it does offer an opportunity to rethink how students can learn outside of the traditional classroom. Here are some concrete ideas and best practices to help you prepare your labs effectively and deliver them using an innovative approach.
On this page:
1) Focus on the main learning outcomes
The essential course components, which are the learning outcomes, the assessment, and the learning activities, should be all in alignment. This means that all course activities (including readings, lectures, homework, lab exercises, etc.) are designed to support students in achieving the articulated learning outcomes and that assessments have been designed to measure how well students can meet those course learning outcomes. Students can gain a lot of skills in labs ranging from data collection and analysis, critical thinking and reflection bridging theory and practice.
Some questions to think about while setting your learning outcomes are:
- What do you really want your students to be able to achieve by the end of the course?
- What skills do you want them to gain?
- Could the labs be taught in different ways instead of a unified in-person experience?
Once your learning outcomes are set, all other activities and assessments should support the achievement of these outcomes.
Examples of lab learning outcomes: Students will be able to…
- Design experiments and make hypotheses based on assigned content.
- Collect, interpret and analyze data.
- Make conclusions about the results, identify their limitations and connect them with real-life applications.
- Apply general course concepts to an appropriate experimental design/problem.
2) Consider different approaches for delivering labs
***A combination of the following approaches might create a learning experience where many of the learning goals from the original course can be addressed***
Live remote teaching approach
In this approach, the Instructor or TA carries out the experiment while students watch the activity live via online conferencing tools (e.g., Zoom, Teams, etc.). This approach will engage students in the process through asking them questions on next steps, which equipment to use, etc. This method has some challenges; for example, it could be time consuming, or the Instructor/TA might face technical problems while carrying out the experiment.
An example of a remote teaching approach in Electrical Engineering can be found by visiting “Virtually...a hand's-on lab” at Missouri S&T (YouTube).
At-home teaching approach
In this approach, you can adapt your labs so that students can perform them at home. A lab kit could be part of the required course materials to conduct the assigned lab work. This might be difficult in some cases as getting materials and mailing them to students might be time sensitive, or the materials might be expensive. However, the labs could be adapted to simpler versions to address some of the learning outcomes (using common household materials instead of specialized items). This approach has some benefits as it is more flexible, and students can complete the work at their convenience.
Some examples from SALTISE of at-home teaching in Chemistry include topics such as:
- Spectrophotometry using Gatorade
- Activation Energy in Chemical Kinetics,
- Volumetric Analysis of Household Acid with Cabbage Juice
Pre-recorded videos & simulation-based approach
If you want students to visualize a phenomenon or technique, consider using video demonstrations and/or online simulations. One way is to pre-record videos in the lab and upload them to Moodle via Yuja. Students can watch them asynchronously and then, with guiding questions provided by the Instructor or TA, discuss the videos during the lab time.
An example of a pre-recorded video in Civil Engineering can be found by visiting Teaching a lab class online at the University of Washington (YouTube).
Another way for students to visualize a technique is through the integration of online simulations. Online simulations are interactive tools that help students visualize the problem in a scientific manner and understand the relationships between variables. Integration of online simulations in your teaching toolkit might enhance the students’ learning experiences. Instructors can present these online simulations to students in class. Sharing the link with students is beneficial in some cases as some online simulation platforms allow students to change variables themselves and observe the resulting behaviour.
An example of a simulation-based teaching approach in Physics/Mechanical Engineering related to the topic of the first law of thermodynamics using PhET Interactive Simulations can be found by visiting the First law of Thermodynamics with PHET.
Some recommended simulation platforms for a range of STEM courses are:
Because these platforms do NOT require students to create an account and/or share personal information, Instructors are encouraged to integrate them into their teaching toolkit. Other simulation platforms might require students to create an account. It is important to note that we cannot compel students to subscribe to a third-party* service and we have a responsibility to ensure that student information is protected at all times. In this case, simulations can be presented during the lecture or if students are interested in trying them on their own, they should be advised to create an account using their Concordia email address or using an account that does not identify them personally.
*Any tools other than those officially supported by the university (e.g. Moodle, Zoom, etc.) are considered third-party technologies. Instructions on how to implement those tools in your course can be found at Using third-party technologies.
A complete list of online simulations available for a range of STEM courses could be found by visiting the Online Resources for Science Laboratories (POD) - Remote Teaching.
3D models and digital field trips
Not only does the integration of 3D models and/or digital field trips help students get the hands-on experience of labs, it also allows them to explore a specific topic in different environments around the world. Digital field trips work for large classes and are not dependant on weather conditions or field locations, which are just some of the challenges for in-person field trips.
Some recommended 3D Models and digital field trips platforms for a range of STEM courses are:
- ASU Virtual Field Trips
- Streetcar 2 Subduction
- Nuclear Reimagined Virtual Field Trip
Because these platforms do NOT require students to create an account and/or share personal information, Instructors are encouraged to integrate them into their teaching toolkit. Other platforms might require students to create an account. It is important to note that we cannot compel students to subscribe to a third-party* service and we have a responsibility to ensure that student information is protected at all times. In this case, they can be presented during the lecture or if students are interested in trying them on their own, they should be advised to create an account using their Concordia email address or using an account that does not identify them personally.
*Any tools other than those officially supported by the university (e.g., Moodle, Zoom, etc.) are considered third-party technologies. Instructions on how to implement those tools in your course can be found at Using third-party technologies.
Summary of different teaching approaches
Here is a summary of how the different teaching approaches can be delivered during a live Zoom lecture, through asynchronous Moodle activities and/or in a dual delivery mode:
Live Zoom lectures
|Live remote approach||See the pre-recorded videos approach.||Students in class could help in performing the lab while the Instructor/TA is recording for students attending through Zoom.|
|At-home approach||Students work on the experiment synchronously while the Instructor/TA is providing them with instructions.||Experimental protocol and instructions are posted in Moodle and students can do the experiment on their own time.||Students attending in-person bring their toolkit to class while students attending through Zoom work on the experiment synchronously.|
|Pre-recorded videos & simulation-based approach||Pre-recorded videos and/or the simulation platform are presented during the lab by sharing the screen.||Instructors can pre-record a video of themselves using Yuja that explains the concept while conducting the simulation.||Instructors can pre-record a video of themselves using Yuja that explains the concept while conducting the simulation.|
|3D models & digital field trips||3D Models and/or digital field trips are presented during the lab by sharing the screen.||3D Models and/or digital field trips platform links are posted on Moodle along with clear instructions and guidelines on how to navigate the website.||3D Models and/or digital field trips are presented during the lab by sharing the screen (for students attending through Zoom) and projecting it (for students attending in-person).|
3) Adapt your learning activities and assessments
Depending on your course learning outcomes, you can begin to think how these might be achieved in other ways outside the classroom. For example, students might design their own experiments and make hypotheses based on assigned content and/or they might watch a simulation video of an experiment and record data. Here is a sample lesson plan of a lab session that can be adapted to align with your course learning outcomes:
Sample lesson plan flow
- Generate hypothesis: First, define the purpose of the lab (for example, this lab is to find out if water freezes faster on its own or with sugar added). Then, ask students to generate a hypothesis predicting the behavior of such scenario prior to running the experiment.
- Design experiment: Based on the developed hypothesis, students work in groups to plan/develop an experimental design to test their hypothesis.
- Observe/conduct experiment: Students are presented with the actual standard experiment using one of the teaching approaches presented above.
- Collect & analyze data: Students can either collect data from the simulations/videos or the Instructor/TA provides each group with the data. In their groups, they perform the corresponding calculations and analyze the results to reach conclusions.
- Post-assessment: To assess students’ understanding of the lab, a quiz could be created using Moodle Quiz feature for students to take either at the end of the lab session or after.
Looking to adapt this lesson plan to online teaching?
Online implementation: Live Zoom lectures [synchronous]
In a live Zoom lecture, students work in groups to generate a hypothesis and design an experiment. This can be done using the Breakout Rooms feature in Zoom. Following the discussion, students return to the main room and the Instructor delivers the lab content synchronously by asking students to observe and/or conduct the experiment using one of the approaches presented above. Students record data while observing the experiment or the Instructor provides them with the data. In the same groups, students then proceed to analyze them and reach conclusions. At the end of the session, students take a quiz on Moodle to assess their understanding of the lab. Students need to log in to Moodle and then the quiz is made available for them to take.
Online implementation: Moodle activities [asynchronous]
In an asynchronous delivery method, students are divided in groups and collaborate using the Groups and Discussion Forums features in Moodle. During this activity, students discuss their ideas within their groups to generate a hypothesis as well as design an experiment. The Instructor then presents the lab content asynchronously by sharing the resources (pre-recorded videos, simulations, etc.) on Moodle using one of the approaches presented above. The students observe/conduct the experiment asynchronously. The Instructor then provides the data to students by posting them within the discussion forums for each group. Students then proceed to analyze them and reach conclusions using their group discussion forum. To assess their understanding of the lab, a Moodle quiz is then made available to students to take during a specific time.
Online implementation: dual delivery mode [in-person & live Zoom lectures]
In a dual delivery method, students in the classroom are divided randomly in groups while students attending through Zoom are divided using the Breakout Rooms feature in Zoom. Following the discussion, students attending through Zoom return to the main room and the Instructor delivers the lab content by asking students to observe and/or conduct the experiment using one of the approaches presented above. Students record data while observing the experiment or the Instructor provides them with the data. In the same groups, students then proceed to analyze them and reach conclusions. At the end of the session, students take a quiz on Moodle to assess their understanding of the lab. Students attending in-person can be asked before class to bring their laptops with them to be able to take the quiz online. If this is not possible, they can be provided with the exam in a paper format.
The following list of inks to resources from other universities contain additional information:
At home chemistry kits allow students to create lab experiences remotely (Standford University)
Pivot to Online for STEM Educators (Instructors sharing experiences going online)
Strategies for Instruction (Princeton University) - scroll down to Lab-based courses
Teaching Lab Classes Remotely (University of Pennsylvania CTL)
Science Labs (Harvard U Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning)
Designing Remote Labs and Experiential Courses (Teaching Continuity at Caltech)
Tales of the Transition to Temporary Remote Teaching: The First Year Chemistry Laboratory Edition (Jennifer MacDonald, Dalhousie University)
Improve STEM Teaching and Learning (Knowledge Network for Innovations in Learning and Teaching, KNILT)
The Khan Academy (For Math, Science, & Computer Science online courses)
Visionlearning (A learning space for science educators and students)
Best Simulations & Animations (links to Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Earth and Space Science)
Virtual Lab and Science Resource Directory (BCcampus Open Education)
MERLOT (curated online learning and support materials and content creation tools)
Interactive Physics (Physics Simulation Software for the Classroom)