lab materials photo
Mineral identification tools. With careful planning, students at a distance can participate in meaningful lab activities

Incorporating Lab Activities in Online Geology Courses

Kristin Riker-Coleman, University of Wisconsin Superior
Jennifer Latimer, Indiana State University
Mel Huff, NEO A&M College
Eliza Richardson, Penn State University
Kelly Dilliard, Wayne State College
Meredith Denton-Hedrick, Austin Community College
authored as part of the 2010 workshop, Teaching Geoscience Online - A Workshop for Digital Faculty

Guiding Principles for Labs

One of the biggest challenges to teaching geology online is the effective integration of lab activities. How can instructors make the online lab exercises as meaningful as those students would experience in a traditional lab setting? 

Two major hallmarks of most face-to-face labs that are not as easy to achieve in an online course are:

  • direct, synchronous access to an instructor during the activity, and
  • access to materials such as hand samples, microscopes, or physical models.

Nevertheless, well-designed labs that include best teaching practices are not impossible in an asynchronous distance learning environment. If constructed carefully by taking into account the needs and preparation level of students, labs will enrich student learning opportunities and aid in delivering the course learning objectives. Here we examine three important aspects of incorporating lab activities into an online geology course:

Why labs are important| How to incorporate labs |Common problems and solutions

Why Should You Incorporate Labs in Your Online Course?

Students learn observation skills by practice

  • In almost all introductory level science courses a key component is a better understanding of the nature of science and the importance of the scientific method to new discoveries.
  • Observations can be biased significantly by suggestion and expectations, so it is vital that students are given many opportunities to make observations and re-evaluate their working hypotheses.
  • Students often don't understand our expectations when we ask them to describe their results or findings because they lack confidence in their abilities to make "correct" observations. This can be further complicated in an online setting because of the asynchronous nature of lab activities. 

How Can You Incorporate Labs in Your Online Course?

An early and important decision is whether the overarching objective of your course is to train eventual scientists or to expose citizens of the world to scientific concepts and ways of thinking. Knowing the answer to this question can guide your selection and development of appropriate lab activities. For example, if your course is one in a series of courses for geoscience majors, then it is more crucial for students to work directly with mineral samples and other possibly expensive laboratory equipment. If on the other hand, your goal is for your students to learn to make appropriate scientific observations, then there are more likely some clever ways around the problem of access to particular materials and the development of specific skill sets. Some general questions below can help guide your thinking when considering adapting, or creating labs for the online environment.

  • What is the quantitative skill level of your students?
  • Is your course a prerequisite for another course (will another instructor expect your students to have learned specific skills in your course?)
  • Are your labs expected to be identical to labs in a face-to-face course also taught at your campus in parallel to your online course?
  • Do students need to learn the appropriate lingo for a specific subfield? (e.g. It is not intuitive to beginning students that green minerals such as olivine are classified as "dark/mafic" when green doesn't look terribly dark to the untrained eye)
  • Do you have help with grading, access to instructional design, access to technical support?
  • Do you have programming skills, audio/visual editing skills?
  • Do you follow a textbook and syllabus that already exist?

Bubbling water Start Simple! The Boiling Water Lab example

Begin the course with a small, easy experiment that can be done in anyone's home. Such an experiment is valuable in order to give students who are at a distance practice working on their own and following instructions without direct synchronous access to you. It will also give you an early opportunity to gauge the preparation level of your students and determine the best pace for the rest of your lab activities. The example experiment below can be tailored to any level of student (from undergrad non science majors to upper level majors or graduate students). Learning objectives are as follows:

Students will

  1. know the difference between an observation and an interpretation
  2. make measurements and keep a dataset
  3. make a plot
  4. define an experimental variable
  5. discuss uncertainties
  6. interpret their own data
  7. interpret data collected by others

In this example lab, students boil water on a stove and make some observations: Boiling Water Lab Description (Acrobat (PDF) 98kB Jun28 10)

Incorporating More Specific Lab Activities

After an introductory lab experience, you can move on to specific labs tailored to your own course. Before you create a new lab from scratch, consider these sources of activities

Making the Online Experience Effective: Thoughts on Problems and Solutions

There is no one perfect solution to the problems presented here. There are pros and cons to every choice, so you must carefully consider the type of students you teach and what will most effectively meet the students' needs.

Rock and Mineral Samples

  • Lack of mineral/rock samples for hands-on exploration of samples, testing of properties of minerals. A few solutions:
    • Prepackaged lab manual designed for distance learning that include samples
      • Geology Laboratory Manual for Distance Learning Kit by Coast Learning Systems, published by Kendall Hunt, ISBN: 978-0-7575-0479-2, Copyright: 2000 - includes labeled rocks and minerals, a hand lens, glass plate, streak plate, nail, topographic map and DVD
    • Stand alone mineral/rock kits
      • Note that these may or may not be labeled when they arrive. If they are unlabeled then the students have no way to reference the rocks.
      • There are also test kits available like this one from Ward Scientific: Geology Collections
      • IVISALES/Geosourc also has a kit available:Rock Collections and Kits
  • Virtual samples and/or simulations.
  • Sample kit check-out at campus library
    • Some problems with ensuring same samples come back each time; library has penalties for this
    • Only workable if students are proximal to campus
  • Have students come open lab times on campus to view samples
  • What about students far away?
  • Who supervises the labs? 
  • Does this give some students an unfair advantage because other students cannot make open lab times?
  • Have students collect their own samples from their area, describe them, photograph them and identify them.

Pedagogic Considerations for Online Labs

  • How do we ensure students are making reasonable observations? How do we get started and how do we build students' confidence?
  • Begin the course with a simple lab designed to teach skills rather than concepts (See "Start Simple" above)
  • Make short video clips demonstrating techniques for testing minerals, or how to identify cleavage, etc.
  • Providing feedback
    • Often a lab exercise demands more immediate feedback than we can provide in an asynchronous setting.
    • You can set a time when you are in a chat room, students could work on the lab and ask questions for more synchronous feedback.
    • Once you have taught a lab more than once, you can identify the most common pieces of feedback you give and record these into video clips.
  • Time management
    • A well designed exercise that reliably takes 90 minutes in a classroom setting could take a student significantly longer in a virtual setting (or significantly shorter).
    • Often online courses are set up into modules 2 or more weeks long. Classroom lab experiences are often weekly.
  • Partners - should partners be assigned for online lab exercises?
    • Students gain a lot from working together (especially making observations), but how do we make pairings that happen more naturally in a classroom?
    • Student collaborations in an asynchronous distance learning environment must be carefully constructed. Instructors must decide if the reason to work in a group is compelling enough given the extra time it takes to create the exercise and the extra time students need to collaborate.
  • Lab phobia
    • Instructors have observed that some students take online science classes because they have a fear (or strong dislike) of labs and lab experiences.
    • In online courses the student is left to tackle labs alone, without a partner or an instructor present, so that lab phobia is something students need to conquer alone (often a harder task).
    • Begin the course with a simple lab designed to teach skills and allay fears (See "Start Simple!" above)
    • Visit the page about student engagement and motivation for suggestions about making students feel more comfortable in an online science course.