A Virtual Lab Format for Online Teaching During COVID-19

text: Virtual Labs for COVID-19: Distance Learning

By the end of the 19th century, laboratory experiments were an integral component of chemistry education programs. Practical laboratory work supports classroom learning by providing students with a more concrete sense of the abstract ideas learned in the classroom setting. Additionally, they offer an opportunity for students to practice laboratory technique, develop problem-solving abilities, learn critical thinking skills, and exercise procedural thinking - necessary abilities in science education and work.1

Unfortunately, laboratory work is difficult or even impossible during the emergency distance learning conditions due to COVID-19; and consequently, many teachers are replacing traditional labs with virtual ones. Virtual labs aren’t new; teachers have been supplementing traditional chemistry learning with virtual labs since the early 2000s. There are numerous advantages to virtual chemistry activities - they are more cost-effective, safer, time-efficient, and student learning may be more profound than traditional chemistry experiments. Although virtual experiments aren’t really meant to replace classic laboratory work, they may at least afford students a temporary substitute to in-person labs.2

Image 1: PhET has dozens of chemistry simulations.


Numerous virtual lab programs are available; however, many require subscriptions or other fees, and budget cuts resulting from the pandemic have forced some teachers (including myself) to find free alternatives. Luckily, PhET, the University of Colorado at Boulder’s technology, has provided virtual simulations and laboratory experiments to millions since 2002 and has always been a free service (image 1). Not only that, but PhET simulations have even been the subject of numerous academic papers that exhibit their benefit for science learning.3,4,5

Studies usually suggest pairing PhET simulations with physical laboratory experiments. In this type of application, simulations can help students link macroscopic events to the corresponding particulate-level representations; a central skill in chemistry learning.6 My fall chemistry labs will follow a similar arrangement.



In the fall 2020 semester, my labs will combine videos of physical experiments with PhET lab simulations, according to the following details.

Physical Experiment Demo Videos

Unfortunately, I can’t send my students home with lab supply kits or require them to purchase their own supplies. Instead, I plan to record myself performing simple lab experiments. In these videos, students will record data as I explain the experimental technique and data collection. Additionally, we will analyze the data together so that each student will have correctly determined results. Afterward, students will be responsible for answering discussion questions based on those results.

Although I’ll perform the experiment for the students in the video, I will still encourage them to follow along and try the experiments out on their own because I will use experiments that work with simple household materials. Relatively safe and inexpensive materials should enable students to complete the labs safely in their own kitchens.

PhET Simulations


Image 2: Many of the PhET simulations include particulate representations of macroscopic phenomena.


PhET simulations will supplement the demonstration videos by enabling students to explore concepts more thoroughly. Students will complete analysis and inquiry questions as they investigate the subject matter in the PhET simulation. Since many PhET simulations use particulate representations of phenomena, connecting them to the macroscopic phenomena should result in a more comprehensive understanding of the abstract ideas behind the experiments (image 2).

Image 3: My first virtual chemistry lab will investigate the macro and particle-level understanding of density.


The first experiment in this format is a two-part investigation of density that (1) explores the definition of density at both the macro and particulate level, and (2) experimental determines the density of unknown objects using water displacement (image 3). In subsequent posts, I will release this lab and others.



  1. Hofstein, A. (2004). The laboratory in chemistry education: Thirty years of experience with developments, implementation, and research. Chemistry education research and practice, 5(3), 247-264.
  2. Tatli, Z., & Ayas, A. (2010). Virtual laboratory applications in chemistry education. Procedia-Social and behavioral sciences, 9, 938-942.
  3. Correia, A. P., Koehler, N., Thompson, A., & Phye, G. (2019). The application of PhET simulation to teach gas behavior on the submicroscopic level: secondary school students’ perceptions. Research in Science & Technological Education, 37(2), 193-217.
  4. Perkins, K. K., Moore, E. B., & Chasteen, S. V. (2014, July). Examining the use of PhET interactive simulations in US college and high school classrooms. In Proceedings of the 2014 Physics Education Research Conference (Minneapolis, MN, USA (pp. 207-210).
  5. Moore, E. B., Chamberlain, J. M., Parson, R., & Perkins, K. K. (2014). PhET interactive simulations: Transformative tools for teaching chemistry. Journal of Chemical Education, 91(8), 1191-1197.
  6. Salame, I. I., & Samson, D. (2019). Examining the Implementation of PhET Simulations into General Chemistry Laboratory. International Journal of Environmental and Science Education.