Making Virtual Science Labs Accessible for All Students

Help all students successfully engage in virtual science labs or simulations with targeted support
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About This Strategy

Virtual science labs or simulations are becoming more and more common, but  students often struggle to engage with them because they are not often fully equipped with the terms, tools, and content knowledge to be successful.  This strategy includes steps to prepare students for a virtual lab or simulation by pre-teaching vocabulary and concepts that they will be working with in the lab, and then navigate the lab simulation using teacher-created graphic organizers that support students to focus on the independent, dependent, and constant variables so that they will know the cause and effect of performing the lab simulation. These scaffolds and supports afford students the opportunity to successfully navigate a virtual lab simulation independently and also support them to discuss their thinking aloud, even in a virtual space.

Implementation Steps to Select a Virtual Lab Activity or Simulation

  1. Select the virtual lab activity or simulation. See the resource section below for examples of online simulations. 

  2. Fill out the Virtual Lab Simulation Teacher Planning Guide linked below to help plan for success with the lab or simulation.  

  3. Determine how and/or if students will be grouped for the virtual lab.

Implementation Steps to Support Students to Engage in a Virtual Lab

  1. Before having students begin the virtual lab simulation, be sure to spend time with students introducing the vocabulary and key scientific concepts that will provide opportunities to access background information and knowledge that is needed for the  simulation. 

    •  Vocabulary:

      • Consider both tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary terms students may need.    If needed, reinforce comprehension of the vocabulary though Frayer Model (To learn more about Frayer Models, consult the Frayer Model strategy in the BetterLesson Lab).  This will help students provide students background knowledge to use in the lab and set them up for answering the investigation question later.

    • Concepts :

      • Analogies:  Use analogies to help students relate to science concepts. 

        • For example, a balloon rising into the sky is the same as what happens with wind.  The balloon represents low pressure, low density air and the surrounding air represents high pressure high density.  The surrounding air moves to the balloon, pushing it up into the sky.  This will help the student to connect prior knowledge to the concept they are learning.

      • Hand Gestures: Use the hand gestures so that students can use body movement to simulate processes taking place in the science concept.  

        • For example, press your hands together for high pressure and move them far apart for low pressure.  Also, lay your hands flat and press the tips together as hard as you can to represent the force that pushes the air parcel higher into the troposphere.  This will help students to learn the science process through kinesthetic learning.  It will also show them motions of the things that are involved in the process.               

    •  Check comprehension of the concepts by using a tool such as NearPod or Google Slides.  

  2. Review the investigative question with class.

    •  For example, "   What causes an air parcel to rise?  In which test did the air parcel rise the highest?  In which test did the air parcel rise the highest?"

  3. Read the procedure aloud to the students. 

    •  Ask what questions they have or what is confusing.

    • Answer the questions and check for understanding.

  4. Direct students to open the graphic organizer that they will be using in the simulation to get them ready to record information.  Students need to reply in the chat once they have it open.

  5. For students who need additional support in the virtual lab simulation, consider the following options: 

    • The teacher can walk through the lab simulation with a small group of students

    • To support all students to be successful, consider collaborative note taking where, as a class, students are called on to help fill out the data table through each trial of the simulation.  

    • The use of screen sharing as the data table is completed so that all students have access to the data table information.

    • Chunking the lab into smaller parts or jigsawing (to learn more about Jigsaw, consult the Jigsaw strategy in the BetterLesson Lab) the lab, so that each group has a part of analyzing the data or observations.

    • Review the Virtual Lab Teacher Planning Guide to make sure all modifications have been made to ensure student success.

  6. Identify the constants and the independent variables. This steps helps students to identify what changing one thing causes.  It starts students to focus on the cause and effect.

    • Ask students to type in the chat or unmute and say what the independent variable is.

    •  Come to a consensus as a class about this idea.

  7.  Use sentence frames for students to create their own hypothesis. The hypothesis framework is meant to help students reason through the effect of the independent variable, If  _________ (independent variable) is changed, then, ________ (dependent variable)  will _________  (correct comparison term such as increase, decrease, rise, fall, move faster, move slower).

  8. Have students engage in the virtual lab. 

    • For more advanced, independent students, provide a video of running the simulation or demonstrating the lab through EdPuzzle or Loom and then have students proceed through the lab/simulation at their own pace

      • Assign the roles for each lab partner including running the lab or simulation and recording lab data on the lab sheet.

    • During and after the virtual lab simulation, students should record the quantitative data or qualitative observations from the experiment in their data table or observation collection area on a group shared lab document.

    • Consider providing students multiple means to express their observations. For example, students can use a text-to-speech chrome extension to record their observations, or students could draw a picture or diagram to show their observations. 

  9. After the virtual lab simulation, lead a whole class discussion in which the students share information about the dependent variable. Look at each of the columns in the data table to see which ones changed as a result of changing the independent variable.

  10.  Then have students analyze the experiment variables and look for trends in the data table or observation collection to help them answer the investigation question(s).

    • Create an opportunity for students to reflect on their original hypothesis and share their learning with their peers.

EL Modification

This strategy is effective for English Learners because it will help them to follow the processes involved in the simulation or lab and to draw conclusions about these processes when they analyze the data.  It will provide students concept maps embedded with videos and pictures to help them see the processes taking place in the science concepts and to build background knowledge.  These maps should unpack the processes going on in the lab or simulation.  Comparison words are also available for helping the students qualify the extent of the changes going on with the variables.  This strategy also helps English language learners because it provides sentence starters that can be used to start the response process.

Implementation steps:

  1. Modify the lesson to include concept maps to be used in data analysis.  
    •  Include what causes and is caused by the processes using the vocabulary words that are involved in the scientific process.
    • Include pictures that show the processes involved.
    • Add  short videos that can be watched to strengthen understanding.
    • Place a reference to these videos across from the questions that they help the student with.
  2.  Consider providing a list of comparison words for students to refer to to help them qualify the change in the dependent variable.
  3. Add sentence starters to help initiate student explanation of how the independent variable changed the dependent variable.

Special Education Modification

This strategy is effective for students with disabilities because it  will help them to readily pinpoint what is causing a change in the lab activity. Students with disabilities will already have part of the analysis of the data made known so that they can start comparing the changes in the dependent variable from the first trial of the experiment to the last trial.  This method is adapted so that the student can have background information or mathematical comparisons to help them reason through the data analysis. To help students initiate their explanation of the effect of the dependent variable, the teacher can provide sentence starters which will aid the student in expressing their experimental analysis thoughts.

Implementation steps:

1. Modify the lesson to include pictures of the independent, dependent and constant variables on the graphic organizer.

2. Modify the graphic organizer to help special education students analyze data.

  • Extract the data from the data table to help the students focus on the numbers to compare
  • Use ordering numbers from smallest to biggest,  equations, inequalities, subtracting or adding integers, or number lines to help students make an accurate comparison of variables.
  • Ask students qualifying questions to get them to participate in comparing the numbers.  Questions can include: which number is smallest, which number is biggest,  is this number less, greater than, or equal to the other number, which number is closer to zero, which one is further from zero
  • Provide familiar comparisons to help students figure out cause and effect behind a science concept.
  • Use highlighting color coordination to help students focus on the data from the experiment that support the data analysis questions being asked.

2. Add sentence starters to help initiate student explanation of how the independent variable changed the dependent variable.

Making Virtual Science Labs Accessible for Distance Learning

Virtual Lab simulations work well during distance learning because they afford students the ability to engage in a science lab without having to physically be in a science lab or classroom. That being said, it is important to prepare students for the simulation by showing them how to operate the simulation and the aim of the simulation.  It is also important for the teacher to be available, perhaps in a small group breakout session, to support students who are struggling with the simulation. And, finally, teachers should bring the whole class back together after the simulation to share findings and conclusions.

Implementation steps:

  1. Use google meet, zoom, or Microsoft teams for a synchronous space for sharing a simulation

    • If the simulation suggests having the student try out some of the different features, pick a student to try out different features before starting the experiment to fill out the data table

    • Ask the student if the manipulation achieved the aim or not. 

  2. After the student has finished, have the student stop sharing their screen. 

  3. The teacher goes back to sharing their screen and finishes the simulation

  4.  Pause to fill out the data table with students.

    • Allow at least one minute per pause while checking with students to see if they need longer to record information onto their data table.

    • Try to save 15-20 minutes from the rest of the class time for students to answer the data analysis questions about the lab/simulation.

  5.  Provide opportunities for students to view parts of the data table that they earlier missed.

Related Lesson

This strategy can be used with my "What Causes an Air Parcel to Cool?" lesson because it involves having students do a simulation about what causes an air parcel to cool.