Pioneering Online Science Labs

Vandana Rola, Marigrace Ryan, Shan Huang
Innovation Showcase

The Pioneering Online Science Labs project exemplifies Sinclair Community College's motto: "Find the need and endeavor to meet it."  Sinclair students expressed a need for fully online degree programs; however, the lack of online science courses prevented the completion of the AA and AS degrees online. The college listened and met the need by developing fully online astronomy and biology lecture and lab courses. The courses have been extremely successful; enrollment has increased and success rates mirror those of the traditional classroom.

Project Timeline

The online lab project began in 2007, following a yearlong research initiative funded by the Ohio Learning Network (OLN) to investigate online pedagogy and technologies for online labs. With assistance from the Dean of Distance Learning and the Physics Department Chair, Shan Huang, an associate professor of physics, applied for and was awarded an OLN Learning Community grant. Sinclair's Web Course Development Team (WCDT) and faculty from three different science disciplines joined the Learning Community and determined that online lab courses were feasible.

In 2007, Shan began working with Sinclair's WCDT and Learning Technology Support Department to produce a three-course lab sequence for online delivery of astronomy labs. The team consisted of an instructional designer, flash developer, graphic designer, and video producer.

The team developed and produced the lab framework, online simulations, instructional videos, and other instructional content. The biggest challenge in moving the labs from the classroom environment to a virtual environment was transferring the physical equipment which students use in the face-to face classroom to an online format. This required the creation of eight flash simulations for astronomy. To create those simulations, our photographers took pictures of the lab equipment from many different angles, our graphic artist recreated these images using Photoshop and Illustrator, and our flash developers used their magic to make the simulations interactive. Students manipulate the equipment in the finished simulations as if they are actually in the labs performing the experiment.

The eight astronomy lab simulations differed in complexity. One very complex effort was to replace a $500 celestial sphere with a virtual sphere to find the stars and constellations. Another complex example was a large laminated star plate of millions of stars, which students in the classroom used to determine the temperature of 14 selected stars by their color index. The task of examining the star images was not easy for a student with poor vision. The online version, with its ability to magnify images multiple folds, is actually more accessible to low-vision students. Other examples of complex simulations include a virtual spectroscope to observe the spectra of various elements, a virtual optical bench/telescope tool to investigate the optical principle in telescopes, and a virtual density tool to help identify Earth material and composition of an asteroid. Instructional videos were also developed to help explain the concepts as well as the procedures for these labs.

Throughout the process, all of the developers' decisions were based on six standards: accessibility, reusability, learning objective alignment, instructional clarity, platform independence, and intuitiveness.

In 2008, the Health Information Management department proposed the development of an online degree program option, but needed the Biology department?s anatomy and physiology (A&P) sequence to support the degree. Biology faculty accepted the challenge, and Marigrace Ryan and Phyllis Williams agreed to develop the online A&P sequence. 

As with the astronomy labs, the biology labs also varied in complexity. Examples of biology lab simulations that were created include the dissection of a fetal pig to learn about its internal organs, the use of a virtual microscope to view blood and different types of tissue slides, the manipulation of bones to form the various articulations found in the human body, and the dissection of a sheep eye.

Once again, our photographers took pictures of the lab equipment, specimens, and human skeletal models; our graphic artist rendered these for use in animations and our flash developers made the final products: interactive lab simulations. Sinclair also created numerous instructional videos to explain difficult lab concepts and to show the step-by-step lab procedures. Flash rollovers, slide shows, and image galleries were also developed. All of these materials are excellent study tools for use by both online and classroom students.

During the development of the astronomy and biology courses, the team members established four project phases, which faculty continue to use for new projects.

  1. Research (3 months): Research and identify available technologies and materials.
  2. Design (3 months): Learn the labs, select the technology, establish a timeline, and brainstorm tools and simulations.
  3. Develop (3 months): Create repositories, tools and content; test components; and assemble the course.
  4. Assess (ongoing): Offer the course, collect faculty and student feedback, and refine and improve the course.

The standards and technology framework established for the astronomy and biology labs have become a model for all future online science courses at Sinclair.

The development of the online biology courses resulted in creating learning tools such as videos, rollovers, and simulations, which are now used for multiple purposes. In addtion to serving the learning needs of online students, the classroom students are able to access the same tools. These tools supplement the face-to-face labs, allowing students to review important concepts after the labs, thus improving comprehension and performance on tests.

The learning tools are also used to help prepare new faculty for teaching the labs. The simulations are now a part of the faculty lectures in the face-to-face courses. This exposure to routine lab techniques helps to ensure consistency among multiple sections of the same lab, which are taught by different faculty.

Awards and Recognitions

The ground breaking Pioneering Online Science Labs project efforts and results have won Sinclair the 2011 National Bellwether Award in the Instructional Programs and Services category. The project also won a 2012 League for Innovation in the Community College Innovation of the Year award. 

The mobile app for the articulation lab, Skeletal PAL, won third place in the eTech Ohio Mobile Apps Development contest.

Cost Effectiveness and Efficiency

In the past, due to limited lab room availability, only one daytime and one evening traditional astronomy sequence could be offered per year. Now, multiple sections of each online course can be offered every quarter. This has resulted in an enrollment increase from 252 students in July 2008 to 607 students in October 2011. The four-year astronomy online success rate was 70 percent while the classroom success rate was 78 percent; however, the online enrollment was significantly higher. In addition, the astronomy online success rate still exceeds the overall average Sinclair classroom success rate of 65 percent.

A&P enrollment increased from 407 traditional classroom students in July 2008 to 1,526 classroom and online students in October 2011, with online success rates (57 percent) comparable to classroom success rates (59 percent).

The virtual astronomy and biology lab courses are now fully developed. The fact that these online labs can be offered to more and more students every term allows Sinclair to recoup the original development costs. In addition, Sinclair does not have to find space and purchase expensive equipment to furnish new labs because the virtual labs are meeting the needs of the students. Updating of content is mainly done in the online lecture courses that accompany the labs, so there is little to no maintenance cost today with the lab courses.

To support the enrollment of the online astronmy courses, the Physics department searched regionally, statewide, and finally nationally for qualified astronomy adjunct faculty. Also, to expand the capacity and meet student demand for online biology courses, the Biology department provided training for additional full time and adjunct faculty to prepare them for online teaching.

Student Impact

Many online students become engaged in astronomy, as evidenced by the comment, "Astronomy class at Sinclair, $250. Astronomy book for class, $100. Ruler for class, $2. Being able to prove to everyone that [I] can actually find the North Star, priceless! :)".

As mentioned, an unexpected benefit was that the online lab materials are now being used by traditional classroom students to review and prepare for tests. One classroom student commented that "the online slides on the microscope were more helpful than the actual lab."


The innovative online science labs at Sinclair that started with astronomy quickly expanded to biology. After the Biology department's A&P success, the Biology and distance learning departments started working on the development of  a two-semester General Biology course series. The first course is completed and the college continues to work on the second course. Our next big project is to work with the Physics department to create an online Introduction to Physics course to meet the need of the Computer Information System's Software Development online degree program. 

For consistency, all of the online labs use the same framework, making it easier to replicate a lab for another department. The framework allows students to spend their time in learning the content rather than trying to understand the organization of the content or searching for it. Each lab simulation is complete in itself and can be used as a stand-alone tool. This feature also makes it easier to use it in multiple courses. To use the tool in another course, all one has to do is change the content--not the tool.

All of the instructions and information in the tools are xml driven. For example, the microscope lab created for the cell lab in General Biology is being used for the blood smear lab in A&P. The sets of instructions in the framework guide students through the simulation and help them complete the lab without the faculty or lab coordinator being physically present. While creating these labs, team members also try to be sensitive to students with disabilites and make the labs as accessible as possible.

Since project completion, the online science labs have been presented at multiple state and national conferences, as well as in online webinars. Session participants have included admistrators, science faculty, instructional designers, and instructional technologists. Questions concerning the timeline, budgets, project support, technology, and teaching and learning for the online labs have been addressed and Sinclair pesenters have shared lessons learned. Participants often ask if the interactive tools Sinclair developed for its lab courses can be purchased or licensed to other institutions, indicating great interest in these online labs.

Vandana Rola is manager of the Web Course Development Team, Marigrace Ryan is professor of biology, and Shan Huang is associate professor of physics and astronomy at Sinclair Community College in Ohio.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.