Dr. Alain St-Amant, chemistry professor and the Vice-Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Student Experience at the University of Ottawa, wanted to offer his first-year French introductory chemistry class, Principes de chimie, online to provide his students a more flexible mode of learning. The traditional version of this class has 5 labs in a physical setting and Dr. St-Amant was looking for an alternative way to offer these labs to his online students. Soon after, he discovered Labster, a company that offers “off the shelf” virtual labs for science courses.
Because of Labster’s reputation for superior products in biology, biotechnology, biochemistry, Dr. St-Amant decided to use it for his Principes de chimie online class, a general class usually taken as an elective by students outside of the chemistry program. The only issue was the content was in English. Dr. St-Amant worked with Labster to have all the virtual simulations associated with the course translated into French and made available to the students. As Dr. St-Amant was creating the French online course, he was simultaneously creating course content in English and produced the online English version called Principles of Chemistry.
Labster is a one-to-one virtual reality laboratory simulator, where students can perform experiments that simulate what happens in a real-world lab. In the virtual lab simulations, students work through real-life case stories, interact with lab equipment, perform experiments and learn with theory and quiz questions. The simulations run on laptop and desktop computers.
Labster uses game design to incorporate scoring and engaging stories to connect science to the real world. For example, in a simulation that teaches about titration, the story is built around a scenario about a hazardous chemical spill in a lake and the students have to use the virtual lab to find a solution to neutralize the acid contamination in the lake.
Working through the experiment to find a solution to neutralize the acid.
Not only do students perform the lab experiment, but students have access to a full theory section, which provides relevant background information when needed. Each simulation has quiz questions designed to help students learn and retain knowledge effectively. Students can also speed up experiments to see results faster.
Example of quiz questions. Students tend to repeat experiments until they get perfect scores, resulting in content mastering.
The student dashboard provides a clear overview of the students’ scores and progress as they learn. Instructors also have a dashboard to see how the students are progressing and areas where they might be struggling. Instructors can see students’ scores, how many attempts they made and how long it took for each attempt. Students can perform the experiments as many times as they want until they have mastered the content.
Benefits and Outcomes
One of the biggest benefits of using virtual simulations is its ability to scale effectively for large classes. Dr. St-Amant can easily have upward of 2,500 students in his online Principles of Chemistry class. The cost associated with setting up traditional labs can be astronomical for a student body of that size, not to mention access to the instruments in that volume. The simulated labs provide student access any time, any day and access to all types of machines and apparatuses they wouldn’t normally have in a traditional lab.
The virtual experiments increase student’s exposure to experiments that are not possible in a traditional setting. Not only are simulations safer, but they give students the freedom to experiment and make mistakes in a risk-free environment.
Many students commented that the accompanying videos and texts allowed them to better understand the theory behind the experiments they were carrying out. Dr. St-Amant also found some students organized virtual “Labster parties” where they go through the experiments together and create chemistry learning communities.
Challenges and Enhancements
One drawback of the virtual labs is that students are not getting the real experience of the traditional “in person” lab. Some students indicated a hybrid approach is preferable where they use both the traditional lab and the virtual lab to supplement it.
Another complication is the University of Ottawa is a bilingual institution, and offers the labs in both English and French. They worked with Labster to translate content, but as soon as Labster updates their product, the translations are lost.
The simulations are good for a general chemistry class and a few could be used in a second-year class, but there are not any labs sophisticated enough for upper year students. However, Labster recently released more options for chemistry and now Dr. St-Amant is using 15 simulations for his Fall 2020 semester.
Labster and Google partnered to offer an even more immersive laboratory experience using virtual reality (VR) for biology labs using Daydream headsets, which use the student’s smartphone.
For Further Information
Full Professor and Vice-Dean, Undergraduate Studies and Student Experience
Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences
University of Ottawa