Teaching Science Labs Online

In response to an anticipated secondary teacher shortage, the Iowa Department of Education launched ILO, or Iowa Learning Online in 2004. Iowa Learning Online ensures that Iowa high school students have quality learning opportunities regardless of where they live, the size of their schools, or their community’s capacity for recruiting highly qualified teachers.

ILO is not a credit-giving institution; rather, it makes courses available for local school districts to offer to their students – any students. ILO serves a variety of educational needs and a broad range of learners from special needs to honors students. Students’ reasons for taking ILO’s online courses range from lack of available courses in their local district to scheduling conflicts. Participants enroll in Iowa Learning Online through their local school district. ILO instructors issue the grade and the resident district awards the credit.

ILO initially searched for worthy high school courses already available online which they would lease from content creators. The idea was to have state-licensed teachers deliver the courses. The program found several good courses in language arts, social sciences, and math, but struck out when it came to finding high-quality virtual lab science courses for lease. So ILO decided to develop its own.

ILO decided to attack development of the hard ones first –namely, anatomy and physiology, chemistry, and physics. ILO was committed to creating lab science courses requiring hands-on participation, higher-order thinking skills, and inquiry process skill implementation.

After spearheading the Iowa teacher shortage research while serving as Iowa’s Teacher of the Year in 2001, I was asked to create the first ILO lab science course, in anatomy and physiology. Although a 32-year classroom veteran, I morphed into an E-curriculum developer virtually overnight! During the 2003-2004 school year, I wrote the anatomy and physiology course and handed it over to a design team at Iowa Public Television that converted it to HTML and uploaded it into WebCT, ILO’s online learning system.

Prior to writing the first unit, I decided it was important to identify all the components which research has shown should be included in any course, so I developed a “Unit Checklist.” I used the unit checklist to make sure each learning module incorporated standards and benchmarks, career education, differentiated learning, technology integration, problem-solving, authentic learning opportunities, higher-order thinking, interaction, global awareness, and reflective thinking, among other things. The unit checklist served as the framework for course structure.

I designed the anatomy and physiology course for high school students who are interested in medical or health care careers and/or wish to become better personal decision makers in their own health care. The course emphasizes breadth over depth — the goal is to expose students to general structure and function of the human body, using a systems approach.

ILO anatomy and physiology is a hybrid course. Most instruction is delivered via the Web, but for virtual office hours, ILO uses the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), a two-way audio/video system with receiving sites in most school districts in the state. Using virtual office hour opportunities, students connect with their instructor at least once per week, more often if needed. Today’s high school students Email like crazy, so WebCT is often used in addition to the ICN interface.

At their remote sites local school employees (student “coaches”) supervise students. They work with the student as an advocate, an accountability partner, and a liaison between the online teacher and the student, parent, counselor or administrator if needed.

Courses are more interesting if they have a realistic theme woven through them to hold the contents together and give context to the study. To parallel the distance-learning delivery, I decided to base the anatomy course on telemedicine — giving medical care at a distance. For relevancy in each unit, I developed a patient scenario that requires students to problem-solve. As students work through a two-week unit, they receive periodic Emails on a virtual PDA detailing symptoms and giving laboratory test data about their patient. Students reach content learning goals in parallel to learning more about their patient. By the end of the unit, students should use what content they have learned to solve a problem, recommend a procedure, or determine a course of action for the patient.

Students receive guest expert Email contacts so they may check their problem-solving results with real health-care professionals in the field. The scenarios worked effectively in the online environment and could be accessed where and when students were ready for them. As one student said in the end-of-course evaluation, “ Bringing in case studies of realistic patients really allowed me to adapt everything I learned in the book to real life issues.”

A graduate student recently asked me what “model” I used when I created the ILO anatomy and physiology course. My answer was, “I made it up.” After having taught in the face-to-face science lab classroom for three decades, I wanted to make sure the online course provided students the same opportunities for active learning and inquiry challenges as my on-site students received. I did not use other online models as templates for my course; rather, I wrote the course as I thought it should be and re-purposed the tools available in WebCT to accomplish my course objectives. Because no one told me I couldn’t write an online course in this way, I did not feel constrained by the virtual environment when creating science lessons.

The major challenge in developing the anatomy and physiology course was how to treat the labs. According to National Science Education Standards, it is very important that inquiry remains at the heart of a lab science course regardless of its delivery mode. After curriculum mapping my face-to-face anatomy class, I realized there were several categories of “labs” students performed. Some labs were virtual simulations that were easy to convert to the online environment. ILO licensed anatomy and physiology images and lesson plans from the Center for Image Processing in Education so students could interact online with medical images such as X-rays, ultrasounds, stereoscopic pictures, and microscopic files. Using digital tools, students measure pelvic angles, determine heart-to-lung cavity ratios, and create density profiles of bone and lung tissue.

Students engage in hands-on labs at their local school or in their home environment. For example, they are expected to soak fresh bones in vinegar, determine the effects of salt water concentrations on potato tubes, dissect a chicken wing, and test lactose free products for sugar concentrations. In creating online labs, I had to determine a way to accomplish the laboratory objectives without special lab equipment, but I found that to be an intriguing creative challenge.

Another type of required hands-on lab includes model-building, where students create such things as working lung models, demonstrating the mechanics of breathing, or skeletal joint models, connecting human structure with its functional limitations. Students demonstrate their working models during an ICN session and a rubric helps determine their grade.

The inquiry approach concentrates on data-gathering in lab settings. ILO students gather and analyze sets of data while working in Teleteams – small groups of students connected via WebCT by Email, chat, and common group workspaces using the student presentation tool. Students count bones by palpation, squeeze tennis balls to determine muscle fatigue processes, and drink caffeinated and non-caffeinated soft drinks while checking their pulse. After collecting data, the Teleteam analyzes its results. Teleteam members can also process data available online. For example, Anatomy students evaluate the analysis of research data from the real 1st Virtual Congress of Cardiology.

Because Iowa is a medium-sized state, I felt students could actually get together once per quarter and do a day of hands-on labs. These are called Regional Labs, and students’ resident school districts are responsible for getting them to the lab site. During the Regional Labs, students run hands-on labs requiring close monitoring due to safety issues (chemical use), specialized equipment (wet spirometers, microscopes), or specimen procurement (dissections). The students and I do activities with lots of face-to-face interaction during regional lab days.

One high school senior commented on his end-of-course evaluation that the ILO anatomy course had more labs in it than any face-to-face science course he had previously taken. I felt ILO had reached its objective of making sure labs were an integral part of a science course after reading his comment.

Although the anatomy and physiology course is available online, it is still evolving and needs constant revision to keep it updated and viable. Receiving a WebCT Exemplary Course Award in July gave immense credibility to the efforts of Iowa Learning Online, and it gives me a renewed sense of purpose to continue developing high-quality courses.

I now serve as an online teacher evaluator in addition to instructing for ILO. As a teacher evaluator, I am responsible for ensuring that all ILO instructors are highly qualified and receive professional development opportunities as prescribed by Iowa’s teacher quality legislation. ILO’s faculty is a part of Iowa’s teaching force with the same expectations and responsibilities as all classroom teachers in our state.

If you are thinking of writing an online science class, make sure you ground it in inquiry and weave laboratory experiences throughout the course. Science students need specific praise and purposeful feedback on labs to keep them growing academically. Regardless of the gifts they were given at birth, each student should be given rigorous curriculum at his/her own level of potential. When you have scientific rigor, relevance to real life, and appropriate relationships with students using an inquiry approach, you can teach good lab science online.

Email: Gail B. Wortmann