Online Labs and the Question of the Relevance of the Lab Curriculum

A series of pictures of solutions from Gen Chem II Lab "Synthesis of Tetraamminecobalt(II) sulfate"

Over the past several months, as we've all attempted to embrace Remote Learning, there is a topic that has repeatedly surfaced and clearly merits discussion: Online Chemistry Labs. From Stacey Lowery Bretz's early call to lab course justification in her J. Chem. Ed. editorial published in early 2019 (Bretz, 2019) to a recent article in C&EN by Celia Arnaud (Arnaud, 2020; C&EN = Chemical and Engineering News) discussing how general chemistry labs are moving online in the Remote COVID-19 Era, the question of online labs has raced through the chemistry community as a bit of a water cooler topic. I've even entered the fray in my conversations with Dave Cormier (Cormier, 2020) and Terry Greene (Greene, 2020). The discussion ranges from: 1) questioning whether we should have certain labs, to 2) the practical aspects of getting our labs online, to 3) asking the question of why we shouldn't perhaps move certain labs online permanently, particularly in the early stages of the chemistry curriculum.

As the chemistry education has contemplated how to move chemistry labs online, we need to carefully analyze what content to keep and what content to get rid of, why we present the content in the ways that we do, and how to change that presentation for online learning. In the process we've had to come to terms with why we teach the labs we do, whether those labs promote learning in the ways that they are currently taught, and what would happen if they were moved permanently online.

The labs that have been most debated thus far are those completed during the General Chemistry sequence.

These blogs will address several questions with the underlying intention that discussion will be generated surrounding this hotly debated issue. These questions include:

  1. Is laboratory coursework still relevant?
  2. Is the lab curricula we currently employ achieving our aims?
  3. Can the laboratory coursework (particularly for general chemistry) be moved online?


There are two goals generally elucidated by chemistry instructors when discussing the lab curriculum:

1. Lab, hopefully, is where the chemistry theories and models learned in lecture are illustrated. And,... 

2. Lab is where contextual relevance (i.e. "real-world" application) is shown.

But it is clear that the question of relevance for lab classes in the chemistry curriculum remains, particularly when we are trying to measure gains in student learning of the chemistry, despite our hope that our lab classes might accomplish our aims.

Reid and Shah (2007) summed up the question of lab class relevance fairly succinctly:

Laboratories are one of the characteristic features of education in the sciences at all levels. It would be rare to find any science course in any institution of education without a substantial component of laboratory activity. However, very little justification is normally given for their presence today. It is assumed to be necessary and important. It is taken for granted that experimental work is a fundamental part of any science course and this is especially true for chemistry courses. Very frequently it is asserted that chemistry is a practical subject and this is assumed, somewhat naively, to offer adequate justification for the presence of laboratory work. Thus, the development of experimental skills among the students is often a suggested justification. Nonetheless, this argument needs to be questioned to justify the position or role of the laboratory in the field of chemistry education. (pp. 173-174)

This quote reiterates so much of what we, as a collective, have been pondering lately– Why are labs required and do they really accomplish our aims in terms of student learning? And with the emphasis in many beginning/introductory chemistry lab classes on practicing laboratory skills, what exactly are we preparing students to do? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25% of STEM Majors move onto a STEM occupation after graduating ( and less than ten percent (9.8%) of students who earn physical science degrees move onto jobs that require bench work (i.e. physical scientist jobs).

My friend @ChemJobber had a brilliant thread on the data below. (Editor's note: Sorry for the large size but any smaller than the letters get fuzzy and difficult to read. Scott Donnelly Two-Year College (2YC) editor)

As my friends are tired of hearing, this is my favorite graphic in the world - it's from the Census Bureau.

— Chemjobber (@Chemjobber) February 27, 2019

These statistics are contextual (i.e. they capture a sample of the population for 2012 only) but @ChemJobber doubts they have changed too much since that time. But he also wanted to emphasize that if you have a chemistry degree, "chances are you work as a manager" (which is not counted in the physical scientist data line) and that "we don't have a clear understanding as to the pathway" from specifically chemistry degrees to chemistry occupations.

This question of lab relevance has been debated for about as long as the modern chemistry curricula has existed. Stuckey, Hofstein, Mamlok-Naaman, and Eilks (2013) argued that the term "relevance" is ill-defined and problematic in terms of science education, yet still managed to decree that lab classes, as characterized by Hofstein & Lunetta (2004) as a "cook-book lists of tasks for students to follow ritualistically" (p. 47), fail to maintain relevance unless their focus is on socio-scientific issues. These socio-scientific issues demonstrate relevance "if any societal decision on it will directly impact the lives of the students, either today or in the future" (Stuckey et. al, 2013, p.23).

So, in other words, to figure out what's relevant, all we need to do is divine the future, then build our lab curriculum based on that divination, right? I know I'm being a bit flippant here, but really? And, yet, in a moment of complete cognitive dissonance- I also completely understand where this definition of relevance comes from because if we had the flexibility to incorporate modern issues into our lab in an ongoing basis (COVID-19 anyone?), our students' learning would inevitably increase because the material we'd be teaching (and students learning) would be directly applicable to their lives.

I know I have laid out an argument here for the demise of lab courses, but from my point of view, I think the issue is multi-layered and muddy. I think eliminating the laboratory coursework from chemistry degrees would result in the loss of something intangible in student learning that would be difficult to replace in another way. So, I still agree that we need lab courses. I just think we need to really think through why we have so many of them and what purposes they serve.


Arnaud, C. H. (2020). Questioning the value of general chemistry labs. Chemical and Engineering News, 98(18).

Bretz, S. L. (2019). Evidence for the Importance of Laboratory Courses. Journal of Chemical Education, 96(2), 193–195.

Cormier, D. (2020, April 3). Online Learning in a Hurry Guest Episode 3—Clarissa Sorensen-Unruh—Trust your STEM students.

Greene, T. (2020, May 22). Gettin' Air with Terry Greene (May 22nd, 2020 Episode).

Hofstein, A., & Lunetta, V. N. (2004). The laboratory in science education: Foundations for the twenty-first century. Science Education, 88(1), 28–54.

Reid, N., & Shah, I. (2007). The role of laboratory work in university chemistry. Chem. Educ. Res. Pract., 8(2), 172–185.

Stuckey, M., Hofstein, A., Mamlok-Naaman, R., & Eilks, I. (2013). The meaning of 'relevance' in science education and its implications for the science curriculum. Studies in Science Education, 49(1), 1–34.

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Comments 1

Steve Cabaniss | Sun, 07/19/2020 - 17:52

Thanks for a nice summary, Clarissa.

“There are two goals generally elucidated by chemistry instructors when discussing the lab curriculum:

1. Lab, hopefully, is where the chemistry theories and models learned in lecture are illustrated.     And,...

2. Lab is where contextual relevance (i.e. "real-world" application) is shown.”

            The former reason is widely cited, but I think the second is more plausible for advanced than for introductory labs.  When I talk with colleagues about general chem lab, “illustration of principles” is typically a subtext, while the more immediate goals are some combination of:

1.  Technical skill-building, often emphasizing quantitative skills and reproducibility but including lab safety and waste handling. 

2.  Building curiosity and interest through engaging and exciting labs. 

3.  Teaching the scientific method through an inquiry-based approach where student help design the experiments.

These are not mutually exclusive, but we have only so much time... the appropriate balance of these three goals may vary with institution.  For example, students already committed to a science major don’t need so much of goal 2, and may benefit from 1 and 3.  Moving goal 3 online seems plausible, either through detailed simulation or by allowing students to plan and direct “live” experiments remotely; achieving goal 1 online seems difficult and expensive.  Goal 2- if this is doable through videos and movies, why aren't we already swamped with STEM majors?

This “balancing act” should also consider how students learn.  While most chemistry faculty are quite adept at learning principles from a textbook (that’s how we got into the field) a significant number of students seem to learn best “hands-on”.  And some of these people have a real affinity for research!

            In my experience, General Chemistry labs vary significantly in purpose among institutions- more so than upper level labs in organic, physical or analytical chemistry.  If we want to evaluate the worth of introductory lab, we will need to consider how these other goals are met.