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By far, the best way to learn science is through hands-on exploration. Nothing will bore a student more than requiring him to learn science from a dry textbook.
Fortunately, it’s never been easier to do hands-on science at home, even during the high school years.
These days, families can order preserved animal specimens for dissections, chemicals and lab equipment for at-home chemistry, microscopes, and more from many online vendors. One of my personal favorites is Home Science Tools, and they’re always my first stop when I need anything for hands-on science.
While performing science experiments is an excellent way to bring science concepts to life, it’s not always feasible. If your high school student is learning from home, there are things they just won’t have access to (chemical fume hoods, incubators, centrifuges, gas bunsen burners, etc).
Technology to the rescue!
There are some AMAZING virtual labs and simulations available that give your students the feel of doing the real thing. The best part: many of these virtual labs and simulations don’t cost a thing! Some may require you to create an account to use them, but it’s a small price to pay for the benefit they bring.
In this post, I’m sharing my favorite virtual labs and simulations for high school science. This is not an exhaustive list: there are virtual labs I purposely left off. Instead, I’ve only included the resources that I’ve used with my students (or plan to) and feel are top-notch. This list will be a work in progress. Whenever I find a new virtual lab or simulation, I will add it to the list.
To make it easier to find the type of lab you’re looking for, I’ve grouped the virtual labs by topic (biology, chemistry, and physics/physical science).
Biology Virtual Labs and Simulations
Here are my favorite virtual labs and simulations for learning and exploring biology when hands-on options aren’t available.
I first found this gem of a site when I was looking for alternatives to animal dissections last year. While this is one resource that isn’t free, it’s well worth the very reasonable price tag.
On this site you will find top-notch virtual animal dissections. Many dissections are available: fish (lamprey, shark, and perch), cat, fetal pig, earthworm, frog, and invertebrates (squid, starfish, and crayfish).
For each dissection, students can examine both the external and internal anatomy. As they use the virtual tweezers to remove organs, an explanation of each organ is provided. In addition, students can choose to watch a video clip relating to that particular organ. For example, when performing the virtual frog dissection, the student is able to watch video clips of intestinal peristalsis, the heart pumping, and the lungs inflating.
In addition to the virtual dissections, this site has other virtual labs.
In the Animacules lab, students can view a variety of cells through a virtual microscope.
I am just crazy about the eFly lab. Students explore genetic crosses as they virtually breed fruit flies. As they analyze the fruit fly progeny of their crosses, they become familiar with Punnett Squares, dominant and recessive gene alleles, and sex-linked traits.
This is by far one of my favorite resources for virtual labs! They have an option to try out the labs in demo mode before purchasing.
In addition to some fantastic videos, lesson plans, and other activities, Biointeractive has some nice virtual labs for biology.
While completing the Bacterial Identification Lab, the student is guided through the process of using PCR to identify unknown bacteria isolated from a petri dish.
In the Cardiology Virtual Lab, the student examines 3 patients and uses the results to determine the diagnosis. This is a fantastic simulation for teens considering a career in medicine and is one I plan to use this year with my Anatomy and Physiology students.
For years, Learn Genetics has been one of my favorite sites for ideas for teaching about DNA and genetics. They have some virtual labs and simulations, too. Their interactive simulations help students understand the procedures scientists use to study cells and DNA, including PCR, gel electrophoresis, flow cytometry, DNA extraction, and DNA microarrays.
Bioman Biology offers games and virtual simulations on their website. These are a bit more like games than virtual labs, but they are done in ways that help students understand the material.
In it, you control the path of an oxygen molecule as it makes its way through the respiratory system: through the trachea, into the lungs, through the walls of the aveoli and into the bloodstream, through the heart and to the body cells. Students then drag the oxygen molecule into the cell’s mitochondria and watch as it is used to produce ATP. Then they take up a carbon dioxide molecule (waste from cellular respiration) and direct its journey back through the veins to the heart, back to the lungs, and back out the trachea.
It’s a really cool interactive experience and I anticipate that it will help students make multiple connections between gross anatomy and cellular processes.
Chemistry Virtual Labs and Simulations
Because chemistry deals with interactions that happen at the atomic level, it can be hard for students to visualize what is taking place. This is why virtual labs and simulations are so fantastic for learning chemistry.
I have written about pHET before. It is a gold mine of fun, game-like simulations in math and science and is suitable for multiple ages. I have used pHET simulations in my chemistry classes, because they help students understand abstract concepts. Here are two of my favorites.
In the Balancing Chemical Equations sim, students are tasked with balancing three different chemical equations representing the formation of ammonia, the combustion of methane, and the decomposition of water.
In each scenario, colored spheres represent atoms of different elements. To balance an equation, what goes in must come out. In other words, there must be the same number of atoms of each element on both sides of the chemical equation. Students toggle up and down to increase or decrease the number of atoms of each element on both sides of the equation. Because they can SEE how many spheres of each color are on both sides of the equation, it’s easy for them to understand how to make the equation balanced.
My other favorite sim is called Reactants, Products, and Leftovers. This one is all about stoichiometry: a notoriously hard concept for students to grasp.
To start, this sim asks students to make sandwiches. Like the previous sim, students use the toggles to add bread and cheese using following the recipe: 2 pieces of bread + 1 piece of cheese = 1 sandwich. They can explore how many sandwiches they are able to make if they have 4 pieces of bread and 3 pieces of cheese, and so on. It helps them comprehend the principles of excess and limiting reagents.
Then they move on to molecules as they explore the stoichiometry of making water, ammonia, and combusting methane. Once again: the ability to SEE what is happening at the atomic level makes all the difference.
There are other chemistry sims that look amazing, including ones that explore acids and bases, gas laws, radioactive decay, molarity, molecular shape, pH, reaction rates, and more. This is definitely a site I can spend a lot of time exploring.
The American Society of Chemistry Teachers has some really wonderful virtual simulations on their site. While access to the bulk of their resources requires a yearly membership (which is worth every penny for me), there are many free simulations available: Preparing Solutions, Predicting Products, States of Matter and Phase Changes, Reaction Rates, Chemical Reactions and Stoichiometry, Predicting Shifts in Equilibrium, Isotopes and Calculating Average Atomic Mass, Half-life Investigation, Density, and more!
One particular favorite of mine is Measuring Volume. In it, students use virtual graduated cylinders to measure liquids. Not only do they learn how to read a meniscus, they also learn how to report their answers using the appropriate number of significant digits.
In the Ionic and Covalent Bonding simulation, students choose two elements from the periodic table. The simulation then displays the electron dot diagram (Lewis structure) of the two chosen elements. Students must predict whether the two chosen elements will form an ionic or a covalent bond, and how many of each type of element will be needed to form the compound. Then an animation shows what happens at the atomic level as the two elements combine. It’s fantastic!!
They also have simulations that allow students to compare different elements of the periodic table on the basis of atomic radii, electron affinity, and ionization energy. In doing so, students gain an understanding of the periodic trends seen in the periodic table.
Chem Collective has many virtual labs on their website in the topics of stoichiometry, thermochemistry, kinetics, equilibrium, acid/base chemistry, solubility, electrochemistry (reduction/oxidation), properties of solutions, physical chemistry, and analytical chemistry.
In my experience, these virtual labs take a bit of getting used to, but they are top quality. Students are placed in a virtual lab and have access to lab equipment and chemicals. It’s up to them to choose what lab equipment to use and how to perform experiments to answer the problem they are given.
While I haven’t used these yet in the classroom, the simulations in which students need to determine the identity of unknown liquids and solids intrigue me. Identifying unknowns using chemistry often provides many “a-ha” moments for students. The fact that they can have the same experiences in a virtual lab that they would in a live class is fantastic.
I recently came across a fun way for kids (of multiple ages) to explore the elements of the periodic table: Nova Elements.
Students can choose to explore the interactive periodic table and learn facts about each individual element.
Then they can explore the elements in “real life” by investigating common items: a banana, DNA, a watch, a plastic cup of coffee, and a coffee tee shirt.
Once an item is chosen, users are tasked with building the molecules that make up that item. For instance, for the banana, students must construct the molecules fructose, vitamin B6, and vitamin C using elements. But that’s not all. They also have to build the atoms that make up those molecules, using their knowledge of atomic structure and the periodic table to “build” atoms of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, etc. It’s a really fun way to explore chemistry.
The Royal Society of Chemistry has a wealth of virtual activities and other handy resources available on their website.
For those of us who’ve taken chemistry, most of us remember performing acid/base titrations. While it’s totally possible to perform acid/base titrations at home, a virtual lab may be the way to go. The Royal Society of Chemistry has a really sharp virtual acid/base titration lab. You do need to register for a free account to access the lab.
This activity walks the student through the process of titration from start to finish. Before they can perform the titration, they must watch short videos and answer questions to prove their understanding of acids and bases. Then they prepare their solutions (using a virtual balance, beakers) and set up their apparatus. The simulation walks them through calculating molar mass, concentrations, and other calculations. This is really a top-notch virtual lab that gives students the feel of really doing the experiment themselves.
Physics/Physical Science Virtual Labs and Simulations
Here’s a shocker: physics isn’t my thing.
While I have taken physics at the high school and college level, it doesn’t interest me as much as biology or chemistry. It does fascinate my son, who is currently majoring in Electrical Engineering. He does his best to try to convert me. All that to say that my list of resources for teaching physics and physical science is on the slim side. Because I don’t teach physics/physical science, I haven’t used these specific resources, but I include them here for those who may want to use them.
Once again, quality, game-like simulations for topics in physics/physical science. Simulations are available for exploring light, radioactivity, circuits, electricity, capacitors, fluids, forces, gravity, lasers, projectiles, torque, vectors, waves, and MUCH more. In fact, I dare say that pHET has more simulations for physics than it has for any other subject.
CK-12 hosts a library of virtual labs, animations, and simulations to aid in learning physics. They have virtual resources available for topics including vectors, motion, rockets, gravity, light, waves, forces, free body diagrams, projectiles, energy, simple machines, torque, and more.
With today’s technology at our disposal, it’s never been easier to give our kids an excellent science education. While hands-on labs are an awesome part of any students education, virtual labs and simulations offer a wonderful alternative.
Is there a virtual lab or simulation that I’ve left out? Please let me know in the comments and I’ll check it out!