I suddenly have to move my lab course online! What should I do?

posted March 25, 2020 and revised June 30, 2020
by Linda Strubbe and Sam McKagan, PhysPort

In the wake of COVID-19, many faculty are being asked to quickly shift their lab classes online. (For general ideas about moving courses online, please see our other Expert Recommendation.) There hasn't been much research on making this type of sudden transition. We are sharing with you ideas and resources that align with research-based pedagogical principles, research-validated resources for teaching labs online, and ideas that colleagues are trying as they make this transition. This recommendation is being regularly updated during the outbreak, so if you have ideas and experiences to share, please let us know in the Comments section, or by emailing editor@physport.org.

Overall guiding ideas

  • Please start with the overall guiding ideas in our other Expert Recommendation, which are applicable to all courses including labs.
  • You can adapt labs you've already written, or look for lab curricula others have written that may work for your learning goals. You may likely have to adapt your learning goals and course expectations for this new situation.
  • Be especially aware of equity issues as you move your lab course online. Some of your students may not have access to a smartphone or computer or reliable internet. Some of your students may not have access to household materials that you may expect to be common. Some of your students may be in environments difficult for conducting experiments (e.g., with children). Coming up with flexible options and approaching your students' varying situations with understanding is especially important.

How different lab components can move online

Labs typically comprise a variety of components. The lab components listed directly below can be moved online in a similar way to moving a lecture-based course online (or might even be online already in your course). For these components, see our other Expert Recommendation with advice for moving your lecture course online, especially the section on moving group work online.

  • Pre-lab and/or post-lab assignment
  • Come up with questions to investigate
  • Interpret data / create models / reflect on results
  • Write a lab report
  • Create a class presentation
  • Give each other feedback on any of the above

By contrast, the lab components listed below are those that need to be majorly re-thought as you move your course online. In this Expert Recommendation, we offer ideas for moving each of these components online.

  • Observe a phenomenon
  • Design an experiment including troubleshooting
  • Collect data (ie make measurements)
  • Analyze and visualize data
  • Develop technical and practical laboratory skills

Ideas for observing a phenomenon and collecting data

  • Students can observe astronomy and physics phenomena in their daily lives, without actually having to perform an experiment (e.g., rainbows in a glass of water, time and location of sunset)
  • Students can use online simulations of physical phenomena. Many simulations allow you to adjust parameters and record data. There is research showing that students can actually learn more from a virtual lab than a physical lab (Finkelstein et al., 2005). See list of simulations below.
  • Students can do an experiment with simple materials at home. Be aware that even materials you expect to be common may not be available to all of your students. Give options and be flexible. (And don't use dangerous materials!) See list of at-home experiments below.
    • Doing experiments at home may help your students more clearly make connections between ideas they learn in class and their everyday lives. At the same time, they may feel less "sophisticated" to students than labs using fancy equipment, so you may want to explicitly highlight the authentic scientific practices students are engaging in.
    • If you want students to make measurements, think about what kinds of measuring tools they might have available. E.g., a ruler, a protractor
    • If students have a smartphone, they can use it to collect certain kinds of data. See resources below. Be aware that some of your students may not have access to a smartphone, or their phone may be too old for certain software.
    • Students can video their own experiment to share with you and their classmates.
    • You can consider putting together a box of equipment for your students to pick up and/or to mail to them. There are also companies that sell kits of equipment for doing labs at home, but we are not including resources that require additional cost to students or instructors.
    • Students can do a combination of experimenting with simple materials to get the basic idea, blended with more detailed work using a simulation.
  • Students can watch a video of an experiment. This can be a video you create or created by someone else. See list of videos in our other Expert Recommendation. Students can also make a measurement from an image (e.g., take a photo of an oscilloscope screen).
  • You can give students a dataset to analyze, or help them to find a dataset in the literature. See list of resources for datasets below.

Ideas for designing an experiment and developing practical laboratory skills

  • Students can work together (or alone) to write a proposal for an experiment.
  • Students can read about or watch a video of an experiment and critique the design. 
  • Students can read about or watch a video of part of an experiment and write about what they would do next and why.
    • You can have students vote on the next step, either by writing their ideas, or among a multiple-choice list. Then the instructor can video themselves doing that next step (to post asynchronously, or do it in real time on Zoom).
    • Or you can create videos of multiple paths through an experiment (e.g., one path setting the dial to X value and another path setting the dial to Y value); then students watch the video corresponding to the step they choose (like choose-your-own-adventure).
  • To develop troubleshooting skills:
    • In an experiment they designed or read about: Students can discuss (in writing or synchronous Zoom discussion) what they think could potentially go wrong and what they would try in order to identify and fix potential problems.
    • Students can watch a video of an unsuccessful experiment and discuss what they would do to identify and fix the problem.
  • Helping students to develop practical laboratory skills without equipment will be difficult. But you may be able to create a video about particular techniques and ask students to write about the skills they see being used, questions they have, lab contexts where they think those skills would be used, etc.

Ideas for analyzing and visualizing data

  • If students were previously doing this work on lab computers, try to get them access to the same or similar software for their own devices, and help them install and test it. Recognize that students' devices may be older and slower than lab computers, and that some students may not have access to devices at all.
  • Help students collaborate while analyzing and visualizing data
    • For analysis in spreadsheets: Google sheets, or emailing each other Excel files can work.
    • Online Jupyter Notebooks - Platform for collaboratively working on Jupyter notebooks. There is a free version. RISE is software for converting Jupyter notebooks into slideshow presentations.
    • Share files on Google Drive, Dropbox, or Github.
    • Students can also share their screens in a Zoom breakout room

Free Resources for Physics and Astronomy Labs

Notes: (1) Consider the accessibility of web resources you consider using in your teaching. If you investigate the accessibility of specific resources, please feel free to share in the Comments box at the bottom of this page, to help other instructors as well. (2) Some resources we list are offering free trials during COVID-19. Make sure you check whether resources you want to use are compatible with your institution's data privacy policies. Also keep in mind that whatever resources you choose now, you may want to keep using in the future, and they may cost money (to you or students) later on. 

By topic

We are gathering resources by topic, and will list them here as the collections are ready.

Simulations and lab curriculum modules where students can take data

  • PhET Interactive Simulations - Interactive simulations of physics phenomena across topics like mechanics, thermal physics and electromagnetism. Most of these can be run on the web, and all can be downloaded to run offline in case of connectivity challenges. There are curricular materials available for most simulations, some of which have been vetted by PhET staff.
  • PASCO Scientific - Resources including lab activities where students watch a short video showing the data collection part of the lab and analyze data through PASCO software, all available for free to students and teachers during COVID-19. 
  • Physlet Physics (part of Open Source Physics) - Simulations across introductory physics and quantum mechanics, including many problems, worksheets, and solutions.
  • VIPER simulations - 200+ HTML5 introductory physics simulations, compliant with all modern browsers and mobile-ready. A subset of these have been made into full-fledged simulation-based labs, including accompanying lab activity worksheets.
  • Academo - Physics and astronomy simulations across topics such as light, orbits, and collisions. Check out their virtual oscilloscope and sound spectrum analyzer.
  • GEAS Project: Laboratory Exercises - Astronomy lab curricula across topics such as sky motion, stellar evolution, and spectral analysis. Labs include materials for the instructor, video tutorials, links to simulations or data, and a lab report template.
  • IBM Quantum Experience - Platform where students can learn, develop and run quantum computer programs. Qiskit and Qiskit Intro Suggested Exercises are additional teaching resources.
  • At-home Interactive Lecture Demonstrations - Interactive Lecture Demonstrations adapted to use Physlets and PhET Interaction Simulations.
  • Labs on the Physics Aviary - Interactive simulations across topics in mechanics, fluids, electricity and magnetism, and waves. Many of them allow students to take simulated data.
  • Molecular Workbench - Free and open-source simulations that you can customize, including associated curriculum modules.
  • myPhysicsLab - Set of simulations across topics in mechanics, including advanced topics like chaos and Lagrangian mechanics. Many simulations create plots and allow students to take data.
  • PartSim - Free online circuit builder that is built on the software SPICE and runs in the browser. Login is required to save workspaces, but some examples can be accessed without login, including some relatively advanced circuits like a low-pass filter and differential amplifier.
  • CircuitLab: Online circuit simulator & schematic editor - Free online circuit builder with simple interface and sets of components. (Designed for integration with an online textbook that is partially complete.)
  • Multisim Live Online Circuit Simulator - Online portal for National Instruments' MultiSim desktop software, which is built on the software SPICE. It has free access that supports circuits containing < 25 components and four simulation types (interactive, transient, AC sweep and DC OP). (Note that sequential gates/flip-flops are not enabled in the free tier.)
  • RealTime Physics iOLab Mechanics - Lab curricula available for free, using the iOLab hardware (a device with built-in sensors to measure quantities such as force, magnetic field, rotation, light, sound, temperature, and voltages).
  • ScienceSims - Simple simulations for physics, astronomy, and math. You can't take data with them for labs, but they are nice for illustrating phenomena (e.g., epicycles, double-slit interference).
  • SciMS - Interactive simulations including advanced topics like optics, quantum mechanics, fields, condensed matter physics and chaotic motion. Some simulations are incorporated in a suite of online learning modules called Five minute physics.
  • NAAP Astronomy Labs - Simulations including curricular materials across introductory astronomy topics such as sky motion, stars, and blackbody emission. Available as native apps for Windows and Mac and Flash. Several are available in HTML5.
  • Foothill College Astronomy simulations - Simulations about planetary configurations and dark matter. Additionally contains a list of other astronomy simulations available from other sources.
  • At Play in the Cosmos - Free Android app game where students can hunt for exoplanets.
  • ChromaStar - Detailed astronomy simulation where students can simulate stellar parameters, parameters of habitable planet zones, and spectral properties of the system.
  • Exoplanet Transit Simulator - Simulates light curve of an exoplanet transit for different star and planet properties.
  • Go Crash Some Planets! - Online game where students can learn about gravitational interactions in a planetary system they design (or a real system from Kepler data).
  • PROJECT CLEA - Astronomy lab modules on topics such as radio astronomy, transit of Venus, and spectral classification of stars. Each module includes Windows software.
  • RotCurve - Astronomy simulation where students can fit galaxy rotation curves.
  • Star in a Box - Astronomy simulation where students can observe how stars of different masses evolve in temperature and luminosity over their lifetimes.
  • Stellarium - Free software to simulate a planetarium on your computer.

Software/apps for taking and analyzing data

Experiments to do at home with minimal equipment

Resources with data students can analyze

  • Archival astronomy data
    • Zooniverse - Website where students can engage in citizen science across many different fields, including looking for gravitational waves in LIGO data and looking for exoplanets in Kepler data.
    • World Wide Telescope - Web client and free software for viewing a wide range of astronomy data sets.
    • VASCO - Citizen science project to look for vanishing and appearing stars. Website has both an English and French version. Access the data here.
    • 100,000 Stars by Google Data Arts Team - Visualization of about 100,000 nearby stars. (Note that the visualization doesn't appear to make use of color or luminosity information, only position and distance.)

Videos with demonstrations

Further reading

Acknowledgments

This recommendation was crowd-sourced with input from many people in the physics/science education community. Contributors include:

  • Andrew Boudreaux, Western Washington University
  • Geordon Brewer, Western Washington University
  • Jed Brody, Emory University
  • Jackie Chini, University of Central Florida
  • Eleanor Close, Texas State University San Marcos
  • Kim Coble, San Francisco State University
  • Kevin Covey, Western Washington University
  • Dimitri Dounas-Frazer, Western Washington University
  • Andrew Duffy, Boston University
  • Milton From, Western Washington University
  • Natasha Holmes, Cornell University
  • Manher Jariwala, Boston University
  • Geoff Matthews, Foothill College
  • Kenneth McKenzie, Duke University
  • Firas Moosvi, University of British Columbia
  • Pimol Moth, Hartnell Community College
  • Ariel Paul, PhET Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado Boulder
  • Kathy Perkins, PhET Interactive Simulations, University of Colorado Boulder
  • Dave Rakestraw, Lawrence Livermore National Lab
  • Georg Rieger, University of British Columbia
  • Vince Rossi, Washburn University
  • Chandralekha Singh, University of Pittsburgh
  • Erin Scanlon, University of Central Florida
  • David Sokoloff, University of Oregon
  • David Strubbe, University of California, Merced
  • Chris Varney, Seattle University
  • Beatriz Villarroel, Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics (NORDITA)
  • Margaret Wegener, University of Queensland

Image ©Bluefield College Photos via Flickr CC-BY-SA