Measuring soil temperature at different depths

Virtual Labs


Virtual Labs

  1. Introduction
    • What characterizes effective laboratory investigations?
    • Supporting remote and virtual investigations
    • Class periods are of fixed lengths. Investigations are not.
  2. Sample Labs
    • Afforestation: tree biomass & carbon dioxide storage (pdf, Grades 6-12) (322 KB)
    • Finding Climate's Fingerprints in the Environment (Google Doc, Adaptable across K-12)
  3. The Lab Lab
  4. Notes for New York State Regents Science Teachers


Laboratory work has been a central part of effective teaching and learning science for generations. The Covid-19 pandemic brings with it a need to redesign what school laboratory work looks like.

This page is the gateway to resources to support lab work that can be completed either virtually or remotely. Virtual labs require only an Internet-connected device. Remote labs can be done away from the laboratory classroom, but still involve learners working with physical materials. While these remote labs often involve observing environmental phenomena outdoors, they are not limited to wild areas.

What characterizes effective laboratory investigations?

The 2019 report from the National Academies, Science and Engineering for Grades 6-12 Investigation and Design at the Center, suggests  engaging all students in learning science and engineering through investigation and design benefits from a system that supports instructional approaches that:

  1. choose phenomena that are interesting to students, for example those that can be examined in contexts relevant to students;
  2. provide a platform for developing understanding of three-dimensional science and engineering knowledge; and
  3. provide an opportunity for using evidence to make sense of the natural and engineered world beyond the classroom.

These approaches can build on students’ natural curiosity and wonder and support students in developing a useful understanding of the nature of science (pages 14 & 15).

Supporting remote and virtual investigations

This nascent but growing collection of resources includes both remote and virtual investigations as well as resources that blend the remote and the virtual. Virtual investigations are those that involve working with data, but not with hands-on materials beyond an Internet-connected device. Remote investigations take place away from the school and laboratory but involve hands-on investigations.

Some laboratory work will continue to look much like it has for generations as schools institute hybrid or fully face-to-face instructional models. While many or all of the investigations and investigative strategies shared here could be done in classroom settings, classroom laboratory activities are not the focus of this resource.

Class periods are of fixed lengths. Investigations are not.

We traditionally thinking of school science labs as settings where each investigation is typically completed in a single class period, on the order of about 40 minutes in length. Of course we know that scientific investigations in research laboratories and other settings where professional scientists work are rarely completed so quickly. We also know that duration of investigations vary widely. Worthwhile investigations can vary in duration from minutes to decades. The resources within Earth@Home support investigations that reflect this wide time range.

Climate's Fingerprints is an observational lab that can be scaled from an activity lasting a few minutes to an investigation lasting all year. Like many labs involving observations of the natural and designed world outside of the classroom, it can indeed be part of a years-long investigation where students can build upon and work with data collected by students in previous years. The short version of this activity is one of the shortest activities that students and teachers can do as a lab activity.

Creating a Virtual Fieldwork Experience is a series of connected activities that can occupy a class period, be used to organize or support the structure of an entire year, be used across multiple years, or be used at just about any scale between these extremes. The link in the prior sentence will take you to the introductory page for Virtual Fieldwork. From that page, or directly from here, you can find Tools and Suggestions for Making Virtual Fieldwork and a Draft Template for Making VFEs.

Sample Labs

The Virtual Labs collection is just beginning to come online in Fall 2020. Check back frequently in the coming months for additions to the collection.

The three resources listed here are a sampling of different kinds of labs.

  • Afforestation: tree biomass & carbon dioxide storage This lab could be completed in one or two class periods. It could be done either on the school grounds or remotely. Students are expected to collect data outside as part of the investigation. (pdf, Grades 6-12) (322 KB)
  • Finding Climate's Fingerprints in the Environment This activity could be completed in a few minutes or extended to a longer activity of a class period or two. A view of the local (outdoor) environment is required. The environment can be viewed out the window, and can be urban, suburban or rural. (Google Doc, Adaptable across K-12)
  • Virtual Fieldwork This is a collection of resources that includes dozens of Virtual Fieldwork Experiences (VFEs), resources to support the use of VFEs, and tools and strategies for making VFEs with students or on your own. (extensive collection of activities)

The Lab Lab

The materials in this section are in development. We are investigating these investigations and would like your feedback. A characteristic of PRI's work with teachers is to engage with them as our colleagues, not merely as participants in our programming.

If you are able to explore these activities and perhaps try components with your students, your input on how to improve and complete them will be highly valued.

While they are works in progress, each has components and ideas that the adventurous will find useful and interesting.

We also suggest that trying things out with your student that are not fully polished is more representative of the scientific enterprise. We recognize too, that during this pandemic much of what many of us are doing from day to day is experimental. These activities in development offer an opportunity to model figuring things out, which, as science educators is central to our work.

  • The Virtual Fieldwork Template - Oregon Coast is an opportunity to explore the biology and geology of the Oregon Coast. It is also serves a model for framing the investigation of an terrestrial environment. Ideally, Virtual Fieldwork catalyzes actual fieldwork rather than replacing it. This template is intended to support learners and educators in the doing of fieldwork and provide a way to document that work so it can be shared with others. (Prezi)
  • How many fires burn for you? This activity focuses on the question in its title. For 90% of Earth's history, there was no dry fuel available as there was no life on land. That means there was essentially no fire. Now, billions of fires are burning all of the time. How many are burning for you? (Google Doc)

Notes for teachers of New York State Regents Science Courses