Are Virtual Labs the Key to Student Retention in STEM?

Mark Gargarian

Students drop out of STEM at higher rates than other courses, but science simulations may offer an unexpected solution for student retention.

STEM educators face a steeper challenge than their colleagues when it comes to retaining students. In fact, graduation rates for science and engineering majors are roughly 20% below other fields, with close to half of all STEM students either switching their degrees or dropping out altogether.

The challenge of retention is real, but with the broad adoption of virtual labs by universities around the world, some educators have found creative new opportunities to capture and hold the interest of aspiring scientists. “It’s great when your students tell their friends, ‘hey, you should take this course,'” remarks Cord Carter who has introduced virtual labs within his chemistry course at Fisk University in Nashville.

Virtual Labs have unlocked a new range of engaging learning experiences

Virtual labs are interactive science simulations that teach lab skills and theory. Students can log into virtual environments from their laptops and experience science through the context of real world scenarios as if they were practicing scientists. “The students get engaged by doing it,” remarks Rodolfo Negri, a professor from the Sapienza University of Rome who uses virtual labs in his bioinformatics course. “And that’s very important because if they get bored, then you don’t go far as a teacher.”

Studies show that hands-on experience early in college can increase graduation rates by 23%, and virtual labs have found their own place in this equation, helping educators supplement, expand, and scale interactive learning within their courses.


Providing a lifeline for teachers and students

STEM learning comes with unique pressures for teachers and students, especially in the first two years which account for 60% of all STEM drop-outs. Students enter STEM programs with wide skill gaps, and educators have strict limits on resources like lab space, with short time frames during which they must prepare and shepherd students through complex labs.

Virtual labs extend this window after hours, providing educators with a new tool to train lab skills and review labs outside of lab hours, while also refocusing their energy where it’s needed most.

  • Virtual Labs empower students to catch up on their own time: Students often find themselves racing against the clock when its time to enter the lab. Virtual labs allow students to try simulations as many times as they need to learn a concept or technique, which can be useful for closing skills gaps in advance, and preparing students in a setting where they can advance at their own pace.

  • Virtual Labs help teachers identify and overcome hurdles before it’s too late. Anything done in a digital environment can be tracked, and this means that teachers are getting better insight than ever before on where students are struggling and where they need help. With a dashboard to support data-driven decisions educators now have powerful tools to target the needs of their students.

  • Virtual Labs free up critical class time for mentoring and discussion.Virtual labs can save teachers time in a myriad of profound ways, which means that educators can free up class time for more meaningful exchanges, such as discussion and personalized coaching.

“I really appreciate how the condensed format helps students see labs through to the end. For biology even if I were to organize a three hour session, the likelihood of them actually getting a result at the end is very low.” Says Bina Rai, a senior lecturer at the National University of Singapore. “Most experiments require a few days of incubation and the right skills to get the results that you want. With [virtual labs], you can always get to the end and analyze your data." 

About Labster: Labster offers interactive, 3D virtual science labs that bring science to life. Labster helps students visualize theory, access state-of-the-art lab environments, and take their learning beyond the classroom, from the quantum realm to the surface of Mars. Expand your curriculum, target learning needs, and foster content mastery to prepare the next generation of scientists.

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