Interested in Online Science courses for your middle or high school student? Check out this guest post on Virtual Labs from Mary Abraham, Instructor and founder of Archimedes Academy Online!
Archimedes Academy Online provides quality junior high and high school science classes geared toward home school students. Students learn not simply to memorize facts, but rather to understand underlying principles and then to apply those principles when solving problems. Our goal is to teach students to apply scientific knowledge and principles while thinking critically about real world topics from a Christian perspective. -Mary Abraham, Instructor
How do I give my student an effective and realistic lab experience in a home school setting? It’s the perpetual question of many homeschooling families. Some curricula include labs designed to use household materials and be performed at home. However, by their very nature, they often do not really demonstrate more difficult principles or are prone to failure, since they depend on the materials you use. Small-scale lab kits are another typical option, but are often difficult to perform well, precisely because they are micro-scale. Virtual, online labs provide another helpful option to homeschoolers. Like most things in this world, they have their disadvantages, as well as their advantages.
But in order to evaluate these lab types, we first must identify the purpose of doing labs. Primarily, labs give students the opportunity to see the principles they’ve learned set in action, which cements the ideas in their brain. The labs also allow the students to apply the theoretical calculations they have learned to practical situations. Secondarily, lab work teaches the students to measure accurately, to pay attention to detail as they follow instructions and record measurements, to observe well, and to be familiar with general laboratory and safety skills.
So how well do virtual labs fulfill these purposes? Virtual labs do allow students to see cause and effect in a chemical reaction, linking theory to reality. While they do still require students to follow detailed instructions and keep accurate records, students do not get quite the same experience measuring chemicals and acquiring laboratory skills. For students who are not planning to pursue a scientific career, this is not a very significant disadvantage. For students who will be taking several laboratory courses in college, this does pose a more serious drawback, but since most freshman-level courses assume essentially no laboratory knowledge, most students should be able to transition easily into a college laboratory setting.
Virtual labs do offer some other significant advantages over typical home school labs. Briefly, they are cheaper than micro-scale lab kits; they are safer than any type of real lab experience, since there’s absolutely no chance of chemical mishaps occurring online; they always work; they give students the opportunity to do many more, and also more complicated experiments than they could perform at home; and they allow students a wider working knowledge of the names, appearances, and functions of far more kinds of lab equipment.
On the other hand, as I mentioned above, the students do not gain the hands-on experience of manipulating and guiding actual lab equipment and reaction materials. Second, because the labs always work, the students are not forced to troubleshoot and identify problems and potential ways to fix them – skills that are applicable far beyond the science lab. Third, as with all internet resources, they can be slow to load or difficult to work with.
I have worked primarily with Late Nite Labs (LNL, https://latenitelabs.com). When I was researching virtual labs, I chose LNL because I was able to do free demos before signing up, I found their website extremely organized, easy to navigate, and visually pleasing, and their virtual laboratory was the easiest to work with. For each experiment, LNL provides background information, detailed procedures, and a place to record observations. At the conclusion of each experiment, they provide multiple choice and short answer questions, with clear instructions for completing the calculations. However, since LNL is designed for both college and high school use, some labs and questions incorporate critical analysis or calculations that are difficult for high school students to complete. LNL is geared towards classes, so instructors must create courses and assign labs. This could work well in a setting where a home school parent has enough confidence to find and assign the appropriate labs to their student or for co-op situations or in online home school science classes (my own area of expertise).
I asked one of my students for her thoughts after using LNL for almost a year. She responded, “Well, one thing I like about using a virtual lab is that it eliminates the need to buy supplies and clean up messes. These tasks can take up time that could be used for learning. However, I think that the chemical reactions would be more interesting and real to observe if they were right in front of you with real water, real chemicals, and real instruments. There are pros and cons, but I think, in the end, virtual labs are quicker, easier, and cleaner than real labs.”
So virtual labs do provide an effective alternative to real labs, though parents will find that certain students will do better with real labs. If you have any questions about using virtual labs, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .