Students experiment with online science labs

By David M. Delloso Jr. 

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A portable telescope in the DCCC astronomy observatory. Photo by David M. Delloso Jr.

In the days of yesteryear, collegiate institutions had science laboratories for students on campus.

Today, students may have more than one resource for completing science labs and courses, thanks to virtual laboratories and simulations.

Website and app development companies, like Pearson Education, Inc., have created interactive online laboratory software to be purchased by students at the cost of traditional textbooks, around $100. Teachers can then assign the artificially generated experiments and grade accordingly.

DCCC has used this technology to expand their curriculums. The technology allows students who wish to stay home to complete their science requirements at their convenience.

Still, some wonder: Although certainly more convenient and accessible, are the online labs really as effective as learning the skills taught in the real laboratories?

Daniel Childers, a DCCC professor of physical sciences who has taught at the college for 26 years, admits he has adapted to teaching online courses; he also acknowledges there is a benefit to online laboratory apps.

“For some students that are highly motivated to learn on their own, it is an easier course than coming here to DCCC,” Childers explained.

Yet, Childers believes some students miss out on learning tangible skills and team building abilities when they are removed from doing physical lab work in DCCC science classrooms.

“The lab is as important as anything else in the course,” Childers said. “Laboratories are the learning environment. [The lecture] is just where you learn the ideas.”

According to Childers, faculty at DCCC are continually improving and polishing on-campus lessons, online classes and hybrid courses. The courses are planned and developed by DCCC, but the technology is not.

For classes, such as the one-credit, two-hour course ESS 103 – Introduction to Astronomy Laboratory, the accessibility of online apps, like Stellarium, allows students to do nighttime sky observations at any time.

Without the program, students would have to use the Marple Campus observatory for their telescopic laboratory work. However, some students say DCCC Catalog course descriptions do not always make it clear that students will need a specific computer to run virtual laboratory programs associated with a course.

For instance, the ESS 103 course description on DCCC’s website reads: “This laboratory course introduces students to astronomical observations through the use of telescopes and star charts to study objects in the night sky…. Observations of the night sky with telescopes and the unaided eye will be conducted. Students will explore the constellations, moon, planets, and other objects of our universe.”

The description does not mention that the course includes a virtual lab instead of an on-site lab. Furthermore, not every student registering for the course may have read the following statement on DCCC’s website regarding requirements for online learning, such as the “ability to install plugins and related minor software upgrades (as/if needed).” Brock Danunnzio, a third-year student at DCCC, experienced semester long issues associated with the app, Stellarium, when enrolled in the astronomy lab.

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Students experiment with online science labs. Images provided by David M. Delloso Jr.

Danunnzio uses a Google computer for his school work, but the app was not compatible with the browsers provided. He believes getting support with troubleshooting is an issue for both teachers and students.

“The computer I had did not offer the program for [Stellarium],” Danunnzio explained. “The problem was Stellarium doesn’t have its own call desk, so I took my problems to the professor, but she routed me to another call center. It was a never ending cycle of ‘This should work’.”

In some cases, DCCC students have failed or nearly failed their courses over these unresolved issues, despite the encourging words from Stellarium’s own website, which claim the product “…shows a realistic sky in 3D, just like what you see with the naked eye, binoculars, or a telescope.”

Fortunately for Danunnzio, he and his professor resolved the issue of the unreliable tech support by coordinating a redo on his lab work. If Danunnzio had not had the accessibility to a friend’s compatible computer, he believes he may have failed the course.

Other students also had mixed feelings about virtual science laboratories. Joanna Scali, a former DCCC student now attending West Chester University, said she would have benefited more from using the college’s on campus observatory when she was taking the astronomy lab course last fall.

“I believe most students, like myself, are visual learners,” Scali said. “As a visual learner, I think labs, especially, should be kept in the physical classroom due to the lack of hands-on participation online.”

Danunnzio and Scali both passed their courses, but agreed the lab work would have been easier and more efficient if done in person because the online laboratory was their only problematic issue. They seldom had issues understanding the lectures.

Childers and some students hope that by voicing their experiences they can help the college to create a more well-rounded and better science curriculum.

For now, it seems that although some experts may agree that online laboratories offer easy access, there will always be some students and professors who prefer the real thing.

Contact David M. Delloso Jr. at

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