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Award-winning virtual chemistry lab provides hands-on lessons online at Oregon State

Oregon State University students can now complete a full suite of chemistry course and lab requirements online thanks to a virtual lab developed by the OSU Department of Chemistry and OSU Ecampus.

OSU Ecampus teams with chemistry faculty to create an innovative lab platform that meets students’ needs

By Tracy Scott

“Necessity is the mother of invention.”

The ancient Greek wisdom of Plato still rings true today, and there’s proof of it in Oregon State University’s online classrooms.

Oregon State has been a leader in delivering chemistry classes and labs online since the mid-2000s. When a need arose in 2020 to find a suitable alternative to a third-party chemistry lab platform, the university tapped into its own expertise and built one from the ground up.

After extensive collaboration between Oregon State’s Department of Chemistry and the OSU Ecampus course development and training team, this cutting-edge technology came to life.

The end result: a national award-winning, virtual chemistry lab platform that offers student-centered, high-quality lab experiences at no cost. The lab received the 2022 Online Learning Consortium Innovate Award for its outstanding contribution to the field of online learning.

Creating the platform truly was a necessity. Shannon Riggs, the Ecampus executive director of academic programs and learning innovation, noted that more than 1,500 Oregon State students used the previous platform annually.

“Knowing that so many students relied upon this software, we teamed with the chemistry department, rolled up our sleeves and began development of an in-house, virtual solution that could support the many labs needed to deliver these courses online,” Riggs said.

Oregon State is now believed to be the only institution with an online equivalent of a full year of physical chemistry. Students have access to a full suite of chemistry courses and labs online to satisfy program requirements.

Driven to replicate the quality of on-campus labs

Leading the creation of the virtual lab platform was Mike Lerner, then the head of Oregon State’s chemistry department who has since retired from the university and works as a chemistry expert for the Ford Motor Company. Lerner and two OSU colleagues believed online chemistry classes could replicate the quality and engagement of those offered on campus.

They partnered with the OSU Ecampus course development and training team to create an interactive lab experience that replaces the physical lab kits that are typically used to complete coursework. This groundbreaking technology quickly captured the attention and respect of leaders in the online education industry.

The Online Learning Consortium recognized Oregon State’s commitment to creating innovative online and digital learning experiences. The labs work with screen readers and meet WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines, Riggs said.

While the chemistry platform was created in-house to meet the needs of Oregon State’s online learners, OSU faculty and administration are excited to share this technology with educational institutions around the globe. Lerner believes the platform is a game-changer for teaching hard sciences in an online environment.

“The software allows online students to simulate the hands-on learning experience they would have in the lab,” he said. “The virtual labs have the same learning outcomes as in-person labs.  Oregon State has been a leader in the online chemistry experience, and OSU insists on learning and outcomes equivalent to the on-campus offerings.”

So how does it work?

The virtual lab platform’s student interface consists of a notebook and a workbench. The notebook contains a dedicated student area where they can review instructions from the instructor, submit questions and provide answers during the lab process.

The workbench gives students the ability to interact with various chemistry tools and compounds by clicking and dragging or using the keyboard to perform experiments. Students record their observations and receive immediate feedback as they progress through the lab.

“These fully online lab experiences have chemistry content and defined learning outcomes, and they cover a wide range of experimentation and data analysis,” Lerner said. “Students leave these courses with a solid understanding of how experiments are designed and evaluated in chemistry, and are well prepared for their following coursework.”

The platform also includes an instructor dashboard. It’s here where course customization occurs with a few mouse clicks. Instructors can choose from more than 30 labs in order to tailor the coursework to their specific course objectives. In addition, instructors can assess comprehension by viewing students’ recorded attempts, choices made during the experiment, and the final grade of each attempt.

“I was a little worried about taking an online class with a lab component, but it exceeded my expectations. The platform comes as close as possible to simulating what I would have expected from a chem lab.”

Developing physical concepts for the digital realm

A team of Oregon State Ecampus multimedia developers led the innovative efforts behind the scenes, working closely with OSU chemistry faculty members at every step. Creating the virtual platform that effectively translates physical chemistry lab concepts and techniques was not without its challenges.

“It was a balancing act,” said Ecampus senior web developer Chris Patenaude. “We had to include important details about physical chemistry tools while making the digital user experience accessible and user-friendly.”

Here’s an example: In the titration lab, users must replace their digital pipette tip each time they need to draw a different reagent. This action is unnecessary in a digital environment, but it conveys an important chemistry principle.

In the electroplating lab, developers sped up the process so that an experiment that would take more than an hour to yield results only takes a couple of minutes.

Students speak: ‘It exceeded my expectations’

The virtual chemistry labs meet the needs of a variety of Oregon State student populations. Enrolled students thus far include degree-seeking undergraduates in fully online programs, nondegree-seeking students looking to transfer credits to other institutions, and postbaccalaureate OSU students.

Student reaction to the software has been overwhelmingly positive, and it confirms the platform’s ease-of-use and ability to facilitate engagement in an online environment.

“I was a little worried about taking an online class with a lab component, but it exceeded my expectations,” said one student user. “The platform comes as close as possible to simulating what I would have expected from a chem lab.”

Another student said the existence of the lab prevented a disruption in their academic career.

“I am currently deployed overseas, and the online lab program has allowed me to take this class without the need to find a space here to do a hands-on lab,” they said. “I would not have been able to take this class without the use of the online lab system and would not be able to progress further in my degree field.”

Additional feedback from Ecampus staff suggests that online delivery might have an advantage over in-person instruction.

“It was interesting to hear that the platform is freeing up students from some of the monotony of reality,” said Doug Croeni, a senior web developer. “For example, instead of spending time on tasks like cleaning test tubes and setting up equipment, the virtual lab is helping students focus on the chemistry itself.”

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