Virtual labs are not just a pandemic thing.
While the majority of kids will be back in brick-and-mortar classrooms by fall, that fact doesn’t relegate online learning to the digital recycle bin. Many schools don’t have robust in-person laboratory facilities, instead relying primarily on dry textbooks to teach difficult STEM topics. But even schools with quality labs can benefit from these innovative and flexible online simulations.
The following top virtual lab sites and apps are all free, highly engaging, and informative—and most don’t require registration. Since most browsers no longer support Java or Flash, sites built exclusively with those outdated technologies have been excluded.
- National Science Digital Library: ChemCollective Virtual Labs
Take a deep dive into chemistry with these virtual labs from the National Science Foundation. All the basics are covered, from equilibrium to stoichiometry to solubility. Each topic includes multiple customizable experiments designed to replicate the in-person chemistry lab experience as much as possible. Brief videos serve as a guide for both teachers and students before getting started.
- PBS: Nova Labs
Terrific platform for teens and older learners to explore and examine cutting-edge issues such as ecology, evolution, renewable energy, cybersecurity, RNA, and more. Accompanying each standards-aligned lab is a guide for educators. Users can create a free account to track their progress.
- FlyLab JS
A super simple and focused site, the Fly Lab is just plain fun—and perfect for beginning and advanced genetic students. Select your flies’ attributes—eye color, wing size and shape, antennae—and predict the offspring that will result from mating. Then cross the flies to test your knowledge. Export analysis and lab notes easily too.
- University of Colorado Boulder: Interactive Simulations for Science and Math
One of the richest single repositories of online science interactives and virtual labs. Investigate more than 150 physics, chemistry, math, biology, and Earth science topics. Available in dozens of languages, the interactives are searchable by grade level, subject, and accessibility. Accessibility options include alternative input, audio descriptions, and pan-and-zoom functionality. The University of Colorado Boulder team even found a way to incorporate Java sims so that you can easily run one in your browser window.
- Reactor Lab
Interactive simulations of chemical reactors and other systems for higher ed students. Try the blockchain and cryptocoin (Teddy Token) sim for an unusual challenge.
- Line Rider
Awesome physics simulation/game/lab experiment. Draw the line to maximize the toboggan rider’s trip time. When you master that, add one or two more riders. Export your best efforts as a movie for bragging rights! Also available as an Android or iOs app.
- Explore Learning Free Gizmos
Gizmos are impressive, multifaceted, and hugely appealing interactive tools for investigating math and science topics. Create a free teacher account to access a rotating bank of free Gizmos. Among the current batch of 36 free Gizmos are those investigating Hubble’s Law, the circulatory system, and periodic table trends. Each Gizmo comprises several manipulatives targeting different aspects of the topic, assessment questions, and student and teacher guides. Certified COPPA, FERPA, and CSPC compliant. Certified fun.
- Chrome Music Lab
An amazing free resource that inspires kids to create music and examine the connections between music and math, science, and art. It’s simple and fun to play around with rhythm, harmonics, chords, songwriting, and much more.
Can students and teachers with no specialized training participate in real-world research? Yes — and the Zooniverse platform is designed to facilitate just that. Current projects run the gamut from the arts to biology to social science; in all, 79 active projects span 11 disciplines. The education guide provides examples and resources for teachers interested in using this powerful research tool in their classrooms. Classrooms can even create their own projects by uploading data to the Zooniverse. iOS Android apps are also available.
- HHMI Biointeractive
Seven free virtual labs, designed for high school and college students, cover lizard and stickleback evolution, bacterial identification, clinical lab testing, neurophysiology, transgenic flies, and cardiology. The detailed labs include built-in quizzes, notebooks, and references. No account is required, but users who sign in with their Google account can save their progress across multiple devices. Great for advanced learners.
- Learn.Genetics Virtual Labs
From the University of Utah Genetic Science Learning Center, these five interactive labs cover techniques that are essential to any molecular biology lab. With DNA and PCR becoming common vocabulary, it’s a great introduction to highly topical technology.
- 3M Young Scientist Lab
Easy-to-use collection of five virtual labs encourages kids to explore science in the everyday world. The labs, covering energy, electricity, design, innovation, and science history, are well organized and fun.
- The Concord Consortium Free Interactive STEM Activities
Fine, extensive collection of interactive STEM resources, searchable by grade level, activity type, and STEM topic. Each activity offers a preview and the ability to assign and/or share with students. By creating a free account, teachers can easily track student work and create assignments.
With a free basic account, users can access six simulations in English and Arabic. The simulated labs are remarkable, offering sophisticated graphics, PDF and animated guides, assessments, and enrichments activities. Topics comprise Agarose Gel Electrophoresis, Annexin V Binding/Propidium Iodide Uptake Assay, Tests for Sodium Radical and Aldehydic/Ketonic Groups, Focal Length of a Convex Lens Using General Law, and Measurement of Ohmic Resistances Using Ammeter and Voltmeter. Although a limited selection, these free labs are well worth checking out.
- LabXChange Harvard
More than 300 free lab simulations that can be easily shared or embedded. Searchable by subject, level, source, and 13 different languages. A rich resource for virtual labs, including some very topical entries, such as Covid-19 infection spread, climate change predictor, and model of hydraulic fracking.
- New Mexico State University Virtual Labs
Eight virtual labs cover basic food science lab techniques and are similar to real-world labs high schoolers or college freshmen would perform. They may not seem glamorous— but our food safety depends on these unheralded-yet-essential tests.
- Bioman biology
Created and maintained by a biology teacher, Bioman Biology offers an outstanding selection of free biology interactives, games, quizzes, and virtual labs. All are standards-based and easy to use for students (no registration required). Teachers can track student progress by simply registering for their own account. Biology topics covered range from physiology to evolution to scientific methods.
- Ecoocean – Future Ocean's Online Game About Sustainable Fisheries
EcoOcean is a unique online fishing simulator that aims to bring awareness to the global overfishing crisis while engaging users in a challenging sustainable fishing experiment. Easy to play and slightly addictive. Be sure to save your high score!
- Cell Homestasis Virtual Lab
What happens to a living cell when it’s placed in solutions of varying sugar concentrations? Use the virtual beakers, graduated cylinder, scale, dialysis tubes, and lab-grade sugar to find out. A simple experiment illustrating a key physiological principle.
- East Tennessee State University
Great collection of higher-level free online biology labs covering ecology, evolution, and cell biology. Each experiment is available in both java and HTML5 - choose the HTML5 as java is no longer supported by most browsers. Users will enjoy changing parameters and observing the effects on honeybee foraging, male guppies’ tail spots, or plant biodiversity. Perhaps most important in today’s world: modeling and understanding the “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon.
- Java Lab
- Natural History Museum of Utah: Research Quest
Curriculum-aligned explorations of topics related to the museum’s exhibitions, such as artifact case studies, changes in the Uinta Mountain forests, and—best of all—dinosaur quarry!