Virtual Labs


Introductory and general education STEM courses can be challenging for non‐science majors, who often view science as a static body of facts. Laboratory experiences are intended to involve students in science, but frequently, due to a variety of resource, safety, and support constraints, the wet lab can become a “cook‐book” activity. Lack of engagement and opportunity for creativity may be reasons why some students perform poorly in these courses. One of the advantages of virtual labs is that they provide a risk‐free environment for students to explore scientific concepts in an inquiry‐based fashion. Using virtual labs, students can formulate hypotheses and carry out experiments where “mistakes” can be made, and the knowledge gained from their attempts can be used to modify experiments toward the desired outcome. This mode of learning by doing is one of the main reasons virtual labs have been designed for use in science courses. Virtual labs can also provide active learning opportunities for general education students to “achieve an understanding and appreciation of scientific principles and the scientific method, ” as specified in CSU Executive Order No. 10652011—General Education Breadth Requirements.

Virtual Labs can be integrated with in-class lectures and, when used with a hybrid-flipped lab model, with two tracks of online and in-person labs alternating every week, have the potential to increase student learning and positive attitudes towards science while simultaneously reducing bottlenecks. Once labs are online, faculty and students are freed from the equipment and scheduling constraints of the brick-and-mortar laboratory. Across the CSU, the use of virtual labs has shown great promise, as evident by the Virtual Labs ePortfolios that have been developed. In addition, you can view a Virtual Labs presentation (48 minutes) by Dr. Robert Desharnais of CSU Los Angeles.

For further information on the CSU Virtual Labs program, resources, and course redesign opportunities, visit the Virtual Labs Teaching Commons site.

Virtual Labs ePortfolios

CSU Virtual Labs in the News

Principles of Virtual Labs

  • Recognize and support existing expertise and proven methods for course redesign that enable greater student success within the CSU through supporting and sharing the evaluation of exemplary practices.
  • Ensure a focus on department implementations which support communities of faculty and the institutionalization of the innovations within the academic programs.
  • Support systemwide networks of faculty and staff committed to improving student learning through transforming course design and advancing the scholarship of teaching and learning.
  • Create innovative course designs by integrating new pedagogical approaches with technology to provide increased student engagement.
  • Consider open educational content, lowering costs for students and increasing available contemporary content to support their learning.
  • Take advantage of systemwide partnerships with vendors and professional organizations that have technologies and services supporting CSU course redesign.
  • Provide a wide range of cost-effective instructional support services, many available 24/7, with a focus on technologies designed to improve student readiness and success, including tutoring, basic skills development, online communities, high impact practices, and support from the CSU’s Center of Excellence for Supplemental Instructional (/wp/supplemental-instruction/).
  • Support faculty leadership in their disciplines through sharing exemplary practices and mentoring colleagues as they adopt/adapt promising practices that achieve the course redesign outcomes and student success evidenced in evaluation.

Potential Benefits of Implementing the Use of Virtual Labs

  • Increased student learning and development of critical thinking skills by emphasizing scientific method approaches to lab activities.
  • Access to experiments over a wider range of STEM topics and phenomena.
  • Addition of lab experiences and experimentation to general education and introductory lecture classes.
  • Reduction of bottleneck courses by increasing section offerings with less demand for limited lab facilities and lower personnel and equipment costs.
  • Inclusion of laboratory experiments that cannot be conducted in web labs due to laboratory safety concerns.
  • Reduction of institutional costs for materials, laboratory support and waste disposal. For example, transfer of a qualitative analysis lab experiment, which involved the use of various heavy metal ions (costly to purchase and dispose of), significantly reduced lab costs per student.
  • Increased affordability for students in cases where lab fees are imposed or students must purchase lab-related items (e.g., laboratory coats).
  • Improved convenience to students with 24/7 access to virtual labs