Engage Students in Project-Based Learning Using Virtual Labs

Ginelle Testa

Zach is a good student but seems to zone out when he comes to class lectures; they cannot sustain his attention for long periods. His teacher tried the project-based learning (PBL) way of teaching and had an easier time getting him involved in class and labs. 

Project-based learning is one active way to engage students in science. “Teachers and materials do not reveal knowledge to learners; rather, learners actively build knowledge as they explore the surrounding world, observe and interact with phenomena, take in new ideas, make connections between new and old ideas and discuss and interact with others” (1). Help learners get excited about science by teaching them with PBL.

PBL is a useful teaching method where students use real-world scenarios and topics they're interested in to gain knowledge about a subject over a dedicated period of time. They can work on a project for a week, a semester, or somewhere between. During this period, they investigate how to answer a complex problem. Instead of it being a project to culminate learning at the end of a unit, PBL is the unit (2). 

A study found that by using PBL, “teachers can engage students in scientific investigations, make use of cognitive tools, promote collaboration, and teach them the deeper conceptual understanding that traditional methods of instruction cannot” (1). 

What are the components of PBL?

There are various ways to divide up PBL components, but we’ve highlighted the components outlined in the PBL Works sample projects (2).

  • Learning Goals - These could be hard skills like learning specific scientific techniques, soft skills such as communication, key vocabulary terms, and even common core learning standards. 

  • Considerations - This is where teachers ask students to consider their audience, context, and any other relevant information they need to start the project on the right track.

  • Project Milestones - PBL learning isn’t a one-time assignment; it has more layers. Project milestones allow students to have guideposts on what activities they’ll be doing and to mark their progress along the way.

  • Products - These will be the deliverables, what students produce that they can share with the class and teacher. 

  • Resources - Sources teachers have identified that’ll be helpful to students in completing their projects. 

Components PBL

How does Labster fit with Project-Based Learning?

Labster has many elements that teachers can use as PBL steps. At the time of this writing, there are nearly 300 simulations on various topics such as Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Earth Science, Engineering, and more. We also have lab manuals, theory pages, quiz questions, a science image library, and 3D animated videos. This diverse suite of learning resources gives educators a chance to differentiate instruction. 

For example, one way to begin a PBL assignment might be for a teacher to give students a choice in how they want to learn. An instructor could be teaching a lesson on Introduction to the Nervous System, one of the core topics taught in the first semester of Anatomy & Physiology. They can give students a choice between three projects:

  • Complete the Introduction to the Central Nervous System Virtual Lab and write a lab report following the Labster report template

  • Create a slide presentation that teaches your peers how the human body senses pain and how painkillers reduce this sensation

  • Together with a classmate, produce a 10-minute video or podcast to teach your peers about the functions of the spinal cord and the four main parts of the human brain 

Once completed, instructors can give another three choices for projects until the unit feels complete. 

Coursework Related to Future Goals

One way to engage students’ perceptions of autonomy is by assigning coursework related to their future goals. Offering Labster simulations supports this intention by presenting ready-made opportunities to help students connect theoretical knowledge to real-world applications of interest to them. Some examples of simulations and careers they relate to include: 

In sum

As a result of PBL, Zach now gets excited about a potential career in STEM. Zach is no longer zoning out in class. He has tried virtual labs, videos, and podcasts related to Forensics and is thinking about being a Forensic Science Technician. He is planning his future education and career path. 

Want to try Labster in your classroom? Use our 30-day educator all-access pass to teach with our catalog of virtual science lab simulations and other science resources. 


(1) Krajcik, J., & Blumenfeld, P. (2006). Project-Based Learning. The Cambridge Handbook of The Learning Sciences. 317–333. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.106.029678

(2) PBLWorks. (n.d.). What is PBL?  Retrieved from https://www.pblworks.org/what-is-pbl 

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