Virtual Labs

The New York Times today has a story about Web-based classes offering virtual labs, and whether they should count for AP credit:

As part of a broader audit of the thousands of high school courses that display its Advanced Placement trademark, the [College Board] has recruited panels of university professors and experts in Internet-based learning to scrutinize the quality of online laboratories used in Web-based A.P. science courses.

“Professors are saying that simulations can be really good, that they use them to supplement their own lab work, but that they’d be concerned about giving credit to students who have never had any experience in a hands-on lab,” said Trevor Packer, the board’s executive director for Advanced Placement. “You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner.”

Internet-based educators are seeking to convince the board, and the public, that their virtual laboratories are educationally sound, pointing out that their students earn high scores on the A.P. exams. They also say online laboratories are often the only way advanced science can be taught in isolated rural schools or impoverished urban ones. Online schooling, which was all but nonexistent at the elementary and secondary level a decade ago, is today one of the fastest-growing educational sectors, with some half-million course enrollments nationwide.

I’m tempermentally with the skeptical college professors on this one, but I’m a little conflicted. As someone who grew up in a rural area, and attended a rural high school, I have a certain amount of sympathy for that particular argument.

(More below the fold.)

The examples in the article are all from chemistry or biology, which makes sense. The materials for those labs tend to be consumable (you can’t dissect the same fetal pig twice, after all), which makes them more expensive to run. Physics labs tend not to destroy the materials used for the lab (at least not on purpose), and there are lots of ways to do really effective and interesting physics labs using low-cost materials. See, for example, Robert Ehrlich’s two books on the subject, Turning the World Inside Out and Why Toast Lands Jelly Side Down.

There are some things that are best done on the computer, even in physics, though. There are little applets out there that let students play with diffraction from different types of sources, for example, something that would be hard to do in real life. And you can set up a single-photon interference “virtual experiment” a lot more easily than you can do the real thing.

In the end, though, I think that computer-based exercises are no real substitute for actual lab experience. Unless, that is, you can program the computer to have something really bizarre and inexplicable happen in one out of ten simulated experiments… Some of the chemical reactions should fizzle, some of the pigs being dissected should be missing vital organs, some of the physics data should just be screwy. That’s what science is really like, after all.

I should also note that there’s a clear alternative to teaching AP classes via “virtual labs”: don’t teach them. It’s not the end of the world, after all– these are supposedly advanced classes for extra credit, not an absolute requirement for college admissions. It’s perfectly possible to get into a good school and have a career in science without taking AP science classes in high school. I know, because I went to a rural district that didn’t offer AP classes in any science subjects. And I’ve got a Ph.D. and a tenure-track job.

The real problem here is not so much that it’s expensive and difficult to offer real lab experiences to students in poor schools, but rather that we have created a college admissions culture in which parents and students think that AP classes are a requirement for admissions, rather than a nice bonus.

(Well, OK, there’s an even deeper problem than that– if we were adequately funding education in the first place, this wouldn’t be an issue at all…)


  1. #1 catswym
    October 20, 2006

    hmmm…i’m a little dubious about your claim that not offering AP classes is a fine alternative. maybe that was fine 20 (?) years ago…but i suspect it’s less so now. heck, i graduated from high school only about 8.5 years ago and i would have felt at a severe disadvantage to not have AP classes/exam scores on my transcripts.

    that being said, i am all about hands on labs. there is no substitute for learning how to be comfortable being in lab than to just be there.

    but for students who have no alternative–it’s virtual or nothing, i think (without having see these programs) i would rather them have virtual.

  2. #2 Blaine
    October 20, 2006


    I am pretty much with Chad on not offering AP classes. I also went to rural school that did not offer any AP classes. This was 12 years ago; in addition, I never took the SAT’s.

    The problem is less about the idea that not taking AP classes makes it harder to be competitive in college, rather it is the perception that AP classes are absolutely ncessary for college. This leads to a somewhat obsessive view for college acceptance. This also creates undue pressure on young kids trying to deal with all of the changes involved with going to college in the first place.

    As Chad states, and I agree with, the problem is that we are not funding or, I add, administrating our basic education properly. If we can improve our basic education then AP classes sort of become unnecessary.

    I am right now working on my B.S. in Physics and Math… I have yet to feel any crunch from not taking AP classes. Even though high school was over a decade ago, I had no trouble gettting into school nor keeping up with students fresh from HS. I know this is just anectdotal… I actually seem to consistently do better in class than HS students in our physics program who did have AP classes and were motivated in HS to prepare for college. (granted, some of this is certainly motivated by me desire to show those kids how its done!)

    I credit this in very large part to the quality of my education during K-12. I went to a school district that was unusually focused on academics and science in particular. The local community poured a large amount of money into district to support the teachers and students.

    The differences I experience seem largely due to solid study habits, a love of learning, and exposure to critical thinking skills at a young age. As often as we hear about the state of public education, I know that it is possible to do it better than we are now. There are good teachers and good programs that just need us to provide them the environment necessary to succeed. One of the ways to do this is to shed this unhealthy focus on “getting into college for the future paycheck” attitude. Students are made to focus so exclusively on future earning power that education becomes a secondary or even tertiary concern. Our focus and concern needs to be on making sure that K-12 education is a good as we can make it. If we can raise that bar then all of the rest will take care of itself.


  3. #3 Mike Procario
    October 20, 2006

    What is the benefit of having things go wrong for the average high school student? For people who are going to become scientists then learning to handle real world problems is important, but they will have plenty of time to deal with that in college and grad school.

    I think the fact that simulations mean that less time is spent getting lab skills up to speed then more time can be spent doing measurements and different experiments.

  4. #4 RPM
    October 20, 2006

    I went to an urban high school and took plenty of APs. In the three science AP courses I took (Biology, Chemistry, and Physics) the teachers were fairly open with us that we would not be doing all of the required lab exercises. We just didn’t have time. Our district started classes too late in September for us to be able to cover all the required material and do all the labs.

    Of course, because we started school so late, we still had about a month after the AP exam to burn. That meant we worked on projects for the rest of the semester, some of which were lab based.

    In college, however, I was required to take intro physics and chemistry because they wouldn’t let us test out of it. I got out of intro biology and I’m now working on a PhD in biology. I’ve actually TA’d more lab courses in grad school (two) than bio lab courses I took as an undergrad (one).

  5. #5 Harry Keller
    May 7, 2007

    You make some great points. I would take issue with most of what everyone says for one simple reason. Everyone conflates virtual labs with simulated labs. Not so.

    Also, the emphasis seems to be on getting ready for the next science course. Many students take just one science course in college and never see the inside of a science lab again. Surely, it’s more important to learn how science works than how a bunsen burner works for these students.

    Colleges can readily have a short “Intro to Lab Work” course to educate students with only virtual experience in lab techniques.

    The comment about AP courses being unable to fit in all required labs proves the point that the audit may fail to achieve all of its aims. Will this school suddenly have more time for labs because of the audit? Not likely.

    I urge you to take a look at In it, I discuss the issues surrounding online science labs and how best to achieve authentic science experience in this medium. You may be surprised to see that I recommend that no simulated labs be used.

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