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When School Goes Virtual & the Lab is Closed...tips for Science Teachers

Here in Morocco we have been experiencing yet another wave of Covid-19, and like so many teachers and students around the world we went from on-campus learning to virtual with less than a day's notice. In this blog post I thought I would share how I cope with the laboratory component of my science courses (both NGSS Integrated Science & IB Diploma) when things suddenly switch up on me. I hope that my insights may help someone else working through the same struggle somewhere else in this endless seeming pandemic situation.


Like just about every science teacher I have ever met labs are both one of our key teaching tools and one of our joys in teaching science, so when we cannot get our students into the lab it is no small barrier to effective instruction. Like many of my colleagues I carefully plan out when I will include each lab in my unit plans, considering when each lab be most effective to support both content knowledge and skill development.


There are three main strategies that I use when adjusting my unit plans due to a sudden switch to virtual learning. I will discuss each and give examples below, I hope that they may help some of my fellow teachers out there to deal with their own Covid-19 disruptions in the least cumbersome manner possible.


Strategy 1: Finding a Virtual Equivalent

The number of virtual labs that exist is increasing every year, I love to use PhET Colorado, Virtual Biology Lab & Java Lab, although sometimes a simple google search for the virtual lab you are looking for will yield excellent results, such as this Rate of Respiration lab from OLABS. While the loss of Adobe Flash Player in December of 2020 has rendered some excellent labs useless for now there are still lots of other great virtual labs out there.

During our recent 2.5 week sudden switch to virtual school I opted to do my Rate of Respiration lab for my Grade 11 IB Biology students virtually with the Rate of Respiration lab from OLABS linked above. This choice was made because while the skill of interpreting a respirometer often shows up on IB exams it is not a required practical. It is an excellent opportunity for students to practice identifying constants, variables and writing null and experimental hypotheses which can be done virtually and I think next time I will incorporate the virtual lab into the pre-lab work for the more traditional and much more complex in-person lab. You can see photos of both lab set-ups below.


Strategy 2: Analyze Data or Exemplars & Move On

When a virtual lab does not exist to replace the lab you are doing, it is very timely and it is not a required practical for the course (such as those in the IBDP) my go-to strategy is to give students some images, a short video or some raw data to analyze to practice those skills we would have learned in the lab. For example in my Grade 9 Science class we just finished up a unit on Forces & Fields and were supposed to do a mapping magnetic fields lab the day after we went virtual, when it became clear that we would finish the unit before going back to campus I shared the following images with my students and had them practice drawing magnetic field lines. In a similar situation with my Grade 10 students who missed an Ice Core lab as part of our climate change unit (the Ice Cores are still waiting in the freezer) I gave them images and a YouTube video to watch to approximate the skills we would have used in the actual lab. The timing of these two labs was much more important than actually doing them in person and now that we are back on campus I will not be doing them again, we simply need to move on with the next unit of study. Although I may incorporate some of these missed labs into our final exam review in May & June.


Strategy 3: Save the Lab for Later

Sometimes the particular lab and the skills developed during the lab are critical to your course, this is true of all required lab practicals in the IB DP Sciences. My Grade 11 Biology students were supposed to complete Practical 3 on Enzyme Reaction Rates about three days after school went virtual... when virtual school was extended and it became clear that we would finish the unit before we went back to campus I decided to postpone the lab. Since labs such as this one are ideally conducted when the relevant content is covered in class, in this case enzyme functionality, I decided to take a "lab day" where students planned their entire investigation, including the question, hypotheses, variables, constants, materials list and procedure with support and feedback from me. Students then submitted their methodology to be used later in the year, most likely in April when we get to our Experimental Design unit. This allows students to apply their knowledge, get feedback and learn as they prepare for the unit test, but conduct the lab at a later time when they can focus on experimental design skills.


While I hope this post was helpful for all my colleagues out there dealing with the ups & downs of Covid-19 I also hope that soon we won't have to adjust to virtual school anymore and we will find a way to get safely back into classrooms and the lab.


Thanks for reading teachers, travelers & curious souls of all kinds.



The Roaming Scientist




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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

I'm the kind of teacher who is always trying something new, new labs, new Apps, new scaffolds and even new countries to live and teach in. I'm looking forward to share what I learn with you all through my weekly blog posts. 

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