Virtual labs replacing more and more hands-on science experiments at leading institutions

STEM-virtual-labCal State L.A. biology students are breeding fruit flies to learn how mutations, such as white eyes or curved wings, are passed to future generations. On other campuses, subjects on treadmills are monitored for changes in blood pressure and heart rate.

These are fairly common lab experiments, except for one thing: They are being conducted via computer.

At colleges and universities across the country, students increasingly are using online simulations, animation and other technologies to replicate — and, some say, improve upon — the hands-on experience of a typical lab.

Spurred by the popularity and potential cost-savings of online learning, virtual labs have infiltrated nearly every scientific field, to the chagrin of some who insist that the practical skills learned through conventional lab work are needed to conduct more advanced research.

Proponents say they’re not suggesting that the sensory experiences of a traditional lab should be abandoned, but virtual labs can be a valuable tool to impart basic scientific concepts while allowing campuses to reduce staff and equipment costs.

The California State University system, the largest in the nation, is planning to dramatically expand the use of virtual labs for general education science courses, which are typically populated by non-science majors who are required to take a course with lab work to graduate.

Last spring, a pilot project at Cal State L.A. compared the success of students participating in traditional labs with those using an all-online format and a “flipped” lab model, where online students met in the classroom every two weeks.

(Next page: Traditional versus virtual)


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