Experimental labs in science education are crucial in providing students with the necessary experience, techniques, and tools to test their understanding of scientific concepts. With the rising popularity of fully online courses, new innovations in technology have now opened up what is possible for STEM educators.
For chemistry courses in particular, where experimental labs are essential to understanding key chemical concepts, a modern solution to the problem of inaccessibility has come in the form of virtual labs.
Dr. Kamesh Narasimhan, Associate Professor of Chemistry at SUNY Corning Community College, has taught a variety of chemistry courses since joining in 2014 and recently adopted Labster’s virtual labs after reading about Labster from the 2018 article in Nature, ‘Simulated labs are booming’.
Read on to find how Dr. Narasimhan has used virtual labs to provide remote students access to chemistry labs, improve student retention and engagement, and tackle the high costs of lab alternatives.
Teaching chemistry online with virtual labs
Dr. Narasimhan’s Introduction to Chemistry and Biochemistry course is fully online and introduces mostly non-major students to the fundamental principles of chemistry. Due to the online nature of the course, he has used Labster’s simulations to replace traditional wet labs and require students to complete a set of 10-15 virtual labs per semester.
He also appreciates Labster’s always-expanding simulation catalog and looks forward to trying out Labster’s new Organic Chemistry simulations to include in his courses, saying “I am open to new possibilities and opportunities with these labs, as I have tried nearly 20 different simulations so far. I like all of them as the stories are engaging, the concepts are made very clear and everything is connected to enhance learning.”
Setting up the virtual labs was well-facilitated with the help of Labster’s support teams, who helped guide Dr. Narasimhan to integrate the simulations in Blackboard, his LMS. He says, “The implementation has been smooth. I got plenty of help at the start and now I am at a point where I feel like I am using cruise control.”
“I am targeting student motivation, engagement and retention, low costs and skills training at this point. Labster ticks all these boxes beautifully.”
Ticking all the boxes: Accessibility, student engagement and lower costs
Before implementing the virtual labs, Dr. Narasimhan identified the key goals that he wanted to accomplish with Labster: “I am targeting student motivation, engagement and retention, low costs and skills training at this point. Labster ticks all these boxes beautifully.”
From Dr. Narasimhan’s perspective, there were three major features that set Labster apart:
Equalizing student access to high-quality labs for science education was a huge motivation for Dr. Narasimhan, a common obstacle faced by many online students. Before Labster, his classes had taken place both traditionally (face-to-face) as well as in a hybrid format, where lectures were held online and students went on campus to complete their labs.
However, this limited the classes to local students around the area. To improve student outreach, Dr. Narasimhan took up Labster, enabling students from other states such as Michigan, Maine and Alaska to take the course fully online. He explains:
“I think Labster provides a complete online package of labs that students can access anywhere in the world. A good majority of my students live in rural areas and this feature enables them to take the labs and finish the course without commuting to college. Many of our students are also non-traditional and have full-time jobs and family to care for. So there are time constraints that will prevent them from taking a traditional class but now with Labster they can progress and make improvements to their career by completing the course in time.”
2. Increasing student retention and engagement
The gamified learning experience of Labster’s simulations can also help disengaged non-majors to grasp key concepts easier than before:
“Labster teaches complex chemical concepts through interesting stories. This storytelling mode is inquiry-based and keeps the student engaged. As the story unfolds, the students are curious and want more of it. This engagement helps us retain them in our classrooms with less effort than before. Labster offers an unparalleled gaming atmosphere that is unmatched currently for STEM-related learning experiences.”
3. Lower cost and lower risk
The Introduction to Chemistry and Biochemistry course is offered five times a year, so Dr. Narasimhan was looking to employ a virtual lab provider that was both affordable without compromising on quality and also to provide students a risk-free learning environment before entering a traditional lab:
“Labster offers students a good financial package. The overall cost is five times lower than other online lab alternatives and it is half the cost of regular school-related lab costs. Students also have an opportunity to make mistakes before coming to the actual lab. Many of the instruments in a chemistry lab are expensive, so Labster gives us a chance to train students in a virtual space and try out different things. This exposure helps them make a transition to a traditional lab much more effortlessly.”
Giving students immersive and engaging learning experiences
Still, Dr. Narasimhan admits that he did have some skepticism before taking up virtual labs: “In the beginning, I was not sure what to expect with Labster. It really helped me to have an opportunity to test out all the labs myself and see it from a student perspective. I was not sure if I could be comfortable with simulations as I questioned their rigor, quality and my own inexperience with gaming tools.”
“Using Labster, I realized that important concepts are reinforced often in these simulations and it was heartening to see it. The concepts are covered adequately and there are good supporting mechanisms built within the simulations. I enjoyed the creative gaming atmosphere that the simulations are based on and they are relatively easy to use.”
Since integrating Labster’s virtual labs, Dr. Narasimhan has noticed more students interested in the course and generally positive feedback all around: “I am yet to collect data [on student outcomes] but qualitatively speaking Labster appears to significantly increase the number of students who take this course and finish it on time.
“The students are generally positive about using Labster. They love having the opportunity to take it home after they finish their day job. Students also like the visual look of Labster and the entertaining stories that capture and teach scientific concepts.”
“The simulations are a great resource for community colleges and they have absolutely exceeded my expectations.”
Since then, he has felt that the simulations and working with Labster to execute the labs have exceeded his expectations. He explains, “It has always been a positive experience for me while connecting with Labster folks. They are always there to help and my questions are courteously answered – I cannot ask for anything more.”
“The simulations are an immersive experience, eye-pleasing, easy to use and bring in a ton of resources and opportunities for students and myself to learn and enjoy. I feel that the simulations are a great resource for community colleges and they have absolutely exceeded my expectations.”
Adapting to increasingly digitized learning environments
In today’s age of increasingly digitized learning, educators need to keep up with and adapt to how the modern student learns. We asked Dr. Narasimhan about his thoughts on the possibility of virtual labs as a standard feature in science courses and his advice on how science educators will need to solve today’s challenges with innovative solutions.
He says: “I think that in the future, especially with the advent of AI, self-learning will become a norm and no longer science fiction. It is simply a matter of time. I would definitely encourage professors to consider offering virtual labs either as a replacement to the current labs that their department offers or as a pre-lab preparation tool or as a vehicle for educating the future workforce in case the courses are more applied.”
“Labster offers a low to no risk mechanism through which complex techniques and instrumentation can be learned without any significant safety issues. I would think that these labs are a great beginning to the VR revolution that is surely coming to our classrooms. The new generation of students will need a different set of motivational tools and our teaching or content delivery will surely need newer paradigms. Both of these concerns are addressed by Labster with its numerous thought-provoking and engaging simulations.”
“The new generation of students will need a different set of motivational tools and our teaching or content delivery will surely need newer paradigms. Both of these concerns are addressed by Labster with its numerous thought-provoking and engaging simulations.”
As for what he thinks are the biggest challenges on the horizon for science education, he says: “Acceptance! Most people think that online is easy and not “real” and to change this mindset it will be challenging. Labster is creating a new paradigm and I hope to be part of this growing movement.”