Undergraduate science labs – a crucial learning environment, a right of passage, or an environmental hazard waiting to happen? Like them or not, the majority of science students here in Trinity will spend a large portion of their degree working away in one of Trinity’s many lab environments.
Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, all these forms of teaching labs have had to adapt to prevent the spread of the virus. Across Trinity, these changes have seen some labs move to an online format, particularly anything of a computational nature that works just as well remotely as in person. Some labs simply cannot be carried out remotely and have gone ahead in person with social distancing and reduced class sizes, and occasionally with the use of remote and in-person hybrid techniques where one lab partner carries out the physical experiment and the other assists and collects data from outside the lab.
“The need for new methods of teaching students practical skills in a safe environment has led to a boom in the use of this type of simulation”
Some universities are taking a more innovative, if slightly controversial, approach: virtual lab simulations. Though lab simulations were in use before the beginning of the pandemic, the need for new methods of teaching students practical skills in a safe environment has led to a boom in the use of this type of simulation in second and third-level education globally. In essence, the lab simulations are similar to a basic video game: using the avatar, you can carry out everyday lab tasks such as putting on a lab coat, weighing reagents and observing reactions. Some follow a set experiment and guidelines are given throughout the simulation, while others allow students to create their own experiments without the safety concerns involved in a real lab.
Though companies such as Labster and PraxiLabs offer advanced individual or group packages for a fee, I tested out a more basic free software from a project called ChemCollective to get a feel for the virtual lab. As a sophister chemist, I had a go at some basic first-year acid and base chemistry. I filled my virtual workbench with some beakers and pipettes, some stock acids and bases, and a trusty bottle of phenolphthalein indicator. In the simulation, I weighed out my reagents using a button for precise or approximate measurements (I, of course, chose approximate measurements as this is closest to my slapdash in-person lab style). When I combined the acid and base, along with my indicator, the colour of the reaction mixture changed, and its pH, temperature etc. were shown at regular intervals as the reaction progressed.
“The lab simulations are similar to a basic video game”
In essence, even this basic and free lab software was a fairly decent substitute for a similar in-lab experiment. Yes, we naturally learn more skills from physically carrying out practicals ourselves and it is unlikely a simulation will ever give the same results. Some universities have been carrying out labs in the pandemic by asking students to watch a recording of a demonstrator carrying out the experiment. In comparison, online simulations certainly gave more opportunity for learning. In addition to this, a 2013 study by de Jong et al. showed that students achieved very similar learning outcomes from virtual experiments as they did from in-person experiments.
Mads Bonde, co-founder of one of the main lab simulations used, Labster, carried out research on virtual labs in the Technical University of Denmark. As part of the experiment half of students in a life science course carried out lab simulation experiments in addition to traditional teaching, while the other half served as a control group. The groups were swapped for a later experiment, to ensure that one group was not just academically stronger than the other. In both cases, the group that carried out the virtual labs did significantly better when tested on the topic, by an average of 76%.
“Simulations allow students to carry out experiments that are very dangerous or even physically impossible in an undergraduate lab”
Virtual lab simulations have some obvious advantages: they cut down on lab costs, don’t require supervision, and students can learn at their own pace and repeat steps outside of the typical time constraints of a regular lab session. And there’s no tedious glassware clean up at the end! They avoid any elements of danger that an in-person lab can pose, and not only this but the curious student can actively carry out dangerous experiments to see what will happen. I think that most of us in the labs have at least once or twice had the urge to go off-piste, and completely ignore the lab manual, heat something up that shouldn’t be heated up for good reason, or add a whole lot more of a certain reagent than needed just to see what would happen. In a lab simulation, you can indulge in that sort of curiosity without risking an irritated lab partner or a worried TA.
“Greater funding for virtual labs comes with an increased level of detail, and in coming years virtual labs could become a more and more realistic reflection of their real-life counterparts”
To an even greater degree, lab simulations allow students to carry out experiments that are very dangerous or even physically impossible in an undergraduate lab, like looking inside a nuclear fission reactor or using the nasty chemicals that only PhDs and professors are entrusted with. Greater funding for virtual labs comes with an increased level of detail, and in coming years virtual labs could become a more and more realistic reflection of their real-life counterparts, as we have seen the ability for fast improvements in similar industries such as gaming in recent years.
There are clear pitfalls to virtual lab simulations: for example, research has shown that students learn more from 2D simulations as they are overstimulated and distracted by 3D simulations. In addition to this, there are some concerns that students get sucked in by the novelty of the virtual lab, waste time messing around and do not see the simulation as an actual experiment, but something closer to a video game.
Will virtual lab simulations ever replace hands-on, real-world science teaching? Highly unlikely. But they certainly have value in a pandemic remote teaching environment, and in the future could be used to supplement in-lab learning. Virtual labs could become one of many new and innovative tools that change the way we learn and take education well into the 21st century.