On June 25th, 2020, Rashmi Venkateswaran, who manages the University of Ottawa’s teaching laboratories, will be delivering a CIC Talks on how laboratory chemistry will be taught in virtual settings.

When universities begin their fall session, most students will be attending virtually, and for the most part, their experiences will replicate much of what they would have known on campus. The latest generation of video-conference software successful captures much of the dynamic found in a typical seminar or lecture class.

As for classes based on laboratory activities, not so much.

“One of the most vital components of chemistry education is the hands-on lab component,” says Venkateswaran. “The real challenge that we’re going to be facing is how to make sure that this year’s students don’t miss out on that vital formative lab experience.”

She outlines some of the possibilities that are now available to institutions like hers, and the limits of various solutions to this daunting aspect of on-line education. There are options, she acknowledges, but even the best of them are no substitute for being there.

Some instructors plan to outfit themselves with a head-mounted camera, whose feed would be available to students. They would then head into the lab to carry out an experiment, taking commands from this remote audience, who would be indirectly responsible for the outcome. Although this approach is highly interactive, it would not be practical for uOttawa’s first year chemistry cohort of some 2,700 students. Those number could require a more passive approach, such as one offered by firms with detailed records of completed experiments that can be presented in a tailored way as the basis of a lab report.

“A student would log in, receive an algorithmically generated data set, and they would write up the report,” explains Venkateswaran. “It would be as if they had collected the data. And that’s the key for me, it was just ‘as if’ they had.”

She is equally skeptical of game-like animations, which may create a sense of obtaining results at the bench, but with none of the pitfalls that force students to hone a skill set.

“Our concern is that you do a virtual lab where you click on something and magically a beaker fills or you click on something and magically the titration happens,” she says. “But that’s not how titrations work and that’s not how beakers gets filled. In reality you have to do it and if you pour too much maybe it will overflow.”

A better version of this technique, according to Venkateswaran, is a product created by a Brigham Young University chemistry professor. Beyond Labz features sophisticated animation but it deliberately lacks any intuitive features that might make it easy to navigate. Students must learn what different pieces of equipment do and they will regularly encounter unknowns that must be carefully assessed, just as they would in a real laboratory.

Venkateswaran acknowledges that this is still imperfect, but it may go far in replacing what will be lost while students are denied access to laboratories.

“You can read a thousand cookbooks but that doesn’t mean you can go into the kitchen and cook a meal,” insists Venkateswaran. “Reading about a lab or watching an experiment being done are a far cry from actually getting into the lab, manipulating the glassware safely, and accurately getting the result that you want.”