Enhance, not replace: Why real university teaching labs are irreplaceable

Teaching labs teacher and student real labs

What are your memories of teaching labs? If you did a science or engineering degree - chances are you can recall at least a few things. Whether your experiences were positive (seeing something you’d only read about in a textbook unfold in front of you), negative (mild bafflement at a large, complex instrument you’ve been asked to operate) or a mixture of the two - it’s most likely they were memorable.

Teaching labs across the country are going through a time of transition, including the introduction of learning technology. In recent years we have seen the development and potential of virtual labs which could be used to replace teaching labs.

However, real university teaching labs are invaluable. At the recent re-opening of the University of Swansea’s chemistry department, Sir John Holman applauded the use of technology to support teaching, but noted:

Whatever virtual experiments can do, whatever digital technology will make possible in teaching, there’ll never be a substitute for the real thing.
— Professor Sir John Holman, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)

We are very much in agreement. Here are four reasons why we believe teaching labs are irreplaceable.


Reason #1 - Because research labs require real lab skills

At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the primary functions of teaching labs is to develop the practical skills needed to be a good research scientist. This makes sense given that a significant proportion go on to take PhDs and progress in academia.

Students with other career ambitions will usually take final year projects in working research labs, and may later work in a field where a scientific mindset is beneficial - such as science communication or education.

Teaching labs enable learning-by-doing, for which there is really no replacement. Online simulations and test questions can be excellent preparation for practical sessions, but they are supports, not alternatives.


Reason #2 - Because being a good labmate is a transferable skill

Of course, there’s more to teaching labs than the experiments. The surrounding experience develops all kinds of transferable skills that apply in nearly any workplace a student may find themselves in after graduation, science-based or otherwise.

Students start learning to be a good labmate, with teamwork and problem-solving from day one. In the first lab, chances are they won’t know the student(s) they’re paired with. But after a brief introduction, they must start working together to negotiate what may be a complex series of tasks. Even when students are working on their own, effective time management and task prioritisation are required to thrive in a lab environment.


Reason #3 - Because many schools are not doing them

According to the Wellcome Trust Education Tracker 2016, only 45% of 14-18 year olds in state-funded schools did “hands-on practical work at least once a fortnight”. This ranged from 36-54% from the most to the least deprived areas of the country.

This is problematic on a number of levels, but it would be even worse if teaching labs at University started disappearing too. Given the benefits teaching labs can bring to students, as we’ve seen, University is an opportunity to make up for some of this lost ground.


Reason #4 - Because labs are where theory comes to life

Let’s not forget that teaching labs can be interesting and enjoyable! It’s one thing to read about an experiment online or in a textbook. It’s another thing to make it really happen with your own hands, seeing the results unfold in front of you.

The sense of agency is invigorating, and the experience can deepen understanding of a topic, especially if the labs are presented as problem-solving challenges which heighten the discovery aspects and highlight real-world applications.


Getting the most out of your teaching labs

Every teaching lab session is an opportunity for scientific and transferable skills development, and a chance for your students to discover something genuinely new to them. But if your labs aren’t supported by effective and engaging resources, you may not be getting the most out of your teaching labs.

At Learning Science, our goal has always been to enhance, not replace teaching labs. We work with you to transform the pre-lab and post-lab experiences to support lab practicals for your students and for you.

Our engaging pre-lab interactives prepare your students for the theory and techniques they’ll be using in your lab sessions. They can arrive at the lab ready to learn. Demonstrator time is better spent answering questions about results interpretation and analysis, rather than going over basic technique or equipment set-up with every student.

After the lab, dynamic Smart Worksheets can be used to provide real-time feedback, given even as the student types allows them to learn from their mistakes in the moment, rather than a week later when they’ve already moved onto the next task. This completes the feedback cycle during the report rather than after it, raising the learning potential of every lab.

See if Learning Science can take your teaching labs to the next level. Get in touch to arrange a free demo or find out more.