Science Labs

Science labs are often either integrated as components of larger lecture courses (lab sections) or comprise the entirety of smaller lab courses.  In both scenarios it is worth defining what the labs are meant to achieve before selecting an online alternative. Below are three possible scenarios based on the focus of the labs.  Since your labs are likely a combination of these scenarios then you could likewise combine these recommendations keeping in mind the appropriate level of time commitment for the combined activities. 

  1. If the focus is on learning techniques and their application to specific experimental situations, consider asking your students to engage in online simulations that may cover at least portions of, if not the entirety of a protocol.

    • Harvard’s LabXchange has just released a suite of lab simulations with assessments and guidance that focus on basic molecular biology techniques. The LabXchange library also includes a curated set of simulations drawn from partner sources like PHET and the Concord Consortium. How to combine these simulations with supporting content and your own assessments is described here. You will be able to assign these simulations with your associated assessments and get your students’ performance data. For additional help email: labxchange@mcb.harvard.edu.
    • MERLOT offers a collection of virtual labs in a variety of science disciplines, but note that you will not be able to capture student performance data. Many textbooks also provide interactive lab-based resources if you have adopted the book for your course.
    • You might consider having your students watch videos of experiments; you can ask your students to first make predictions and then discuss the results. The Journal of Visualized Experiments offers videos of experiments, including many designed for students.
  2. If the focus is on interpreting experimental data, consider extracting datasets from the published literature that are aligned with the experiments students would have encountered in lab and develop problem sets that focus on the interpretation of the data.  One could also combine the experimental protocols with interspersed questions that explore the reasons behind specific steps so that students gain deeper intuition into why certain procedures are performed. In place of actually performing the experiment, students can gain a critique-based understanding of the method followed by data interpretation.

  3. If the focus is on project-based lab research, as is often the case in lab courses, your students have already been working on their projects since the start of the term.  Furthermore, there is usually a capstone assignment in the form of a final paper, grant application and/or poster that describes their work, both with context and future directions defined.  Consider asking your students to switch to the capstone assignment now with an emphasis on interpreting the data they have already gathered or if they have not generated their own data yet, focus on having them predict their experimental outcomes and design the next experimental steps in detail.  Divide up the rest of the semester into draft submissions of sections of the capstone that will allow you to provide formative feedback and enable your students to experience experimental design, further hypothesis building, and predictive data analysis. This approach aligns especially well with a written capstone styled like a grant application.

The above recommendations combine what resources are available to support virtual lab exercises with assignments that combine data interpretation with the experience of experimental design, hypothesis building, and self-reflexive critiques of the methods and outcomes that students develop. Bok Center staff stand ready to share examples of these approaches and to help you develop the combination that best suits your course.

Academic Technology for the FAS / HUIT

Your starting place for learning about and accessing many of the technological tools you may need, such as Zoom, Canvas, and related plug-ins.

The Vice Provost for Advances in Learning (VPAL)

VPAL convenes university-wide conversations about teaching and pedagogical research, particularly in the online space.

The Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE)

OUE oversees, and stewards resources devoted to, the undergraduate curriculum at Harvard College..

The Division of Continuing Education (DCE)

DCE offers a mix of in-person, hybrid, and online courses, and their staff are experienced in thinking about multiple ways to achieve your goals through different mediums.

SEAS and the Division of Science

Advice on teaching in the sciences.

The Harvard Libraries

Request help modifying/troubleshooting your research-based assignments.

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Schedule a consultation with the Bok Center's Senior Staff. (Please note that consultations are available only for Faculty and Teaching Fellows in the FAS.)

Faculty can visit our daily office hours, every Monday–Friday 10:30–11:30 AM; register for a one-hour practice teaching session; and join a workshop on teaching with presence in Zoom.

Daily Office Hours  |  Practice Teaching  |  Zoom Workshop

Teaching Fellows can attend the Fall Teaching Conference, which includes both asynchronous Canvas resources and synchronous sessions devoted to collaboration and practice.

Fall Teaching Conference

The media production staff of the Bok Center's Learning Lab can provide consultations for faculty teaching Harvard College courses using Zoom and other modes of media capture. We can provide suggestions for setting up remote video capture environments in your home or office, and on ways to integrate media into your courses.  Please contact us if you would like to discuss your needs with our staff.

Email the Learning Lab  |  Request a Media Tutorial

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