University of Ottawa: Scaling Chemistry Courses with Virtual Labs

The University of Ottawa is the largest French-English bilingual university in the world. If you want to study science in French, you have likely passed through the class of Chemistry professor, Dr. Alain St-Amant. Dr. St-Amant has been using Labster as a part of his course for the past two years. His goal in bringing Labster to the University of Ottawa was to bring context to chemistry and enhance his student’s learning experiences. He spoke to us recently about how virtual simulations have added value to his course and helped engage more students in chemistry.

Democratizing access to laboratories

Labster was first brought to Dr. St-Amant’s attention two years ago when he was adapting his traditional chemistry course to an online format. He was struggling to find an alternative for physical labs when the Centre for Innovative Pedagogies and Digital Learning at his University introduced him to Labster. After getting the simulations translated into French, Dr. St-Amant chose to implement the virtual simulations in both his online and traditional courses.

The online version of Dr. St-Amant’s course has come to serve students that do not normally have access to the traditional chemistry course he teaches. Dr. St-Amant explains the dynamics of his online class to us: “The traditional chemistry course is reserved for only those students that are required to take it, meaning students can’t take it as an elective. When I teach the online course, the vast majority of students are studying other topics such as computer science or social sciences. There are also non-traditional students, such as people thinking of going into medicine from a non-traditional background, and they know they need chemistry to apply to medical school. We’ve discovered some really great students that previously weren’t allowed to take chemistry courses at our university because there was no room for them.”

Increasing student exposure to experiments

Dr. St-Amant is both a professor and the Vice-Dean of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Ottawa. With his dual roles, he has had to learn to deal with both the pedagogy and financial aspects of running a university department. “I have to worry about budgets. It’s not my main concern and shouldn’t be but it is something I have to think about now.” That’s why Dr. St-Amant not only saw Labster as a substitute for online courses but also as a way to enhance students’ learning in his physical courses. 

When Dr. St-Amant first started teaching chemistry, the typical university would have around 12 labs per semester. As cutbacks have taken place, the amount of labs a student completes is now down to 6. As he explains, “The cut back in labs is purely financial, not for pedagogical reasons. I don’t think we will ever get back to those days of 12 labs. What we can do is supplement the physical labs with virtual simulations.”

The students in Dr. St-Amant’s traditional course complete 6 physical labs and 6 Labster simulations. Though the simulations are not required — provincial guidelines legally require external software to be optional— he says approximately 70% of his students choose to complete the Labster simulations and perform noticeably better in the class.

Virtual simulations for scaling courses effectively

For Dr. St-Amant, learning in simulations was a natural step for his course. Simulations offered a learning experience that such a large course cannot offer students due to time, financial and safety constraints. “It’s just like learning how to fly an airplane. There’s no substitute for actually being up in the airplane, but you can be more efficient. There are certain situations you wouldn’t want to practice in real life in an airplane. There are also certain experiments that are too dangerous and then there is also the financial aspect. When you’re talking about 3000 students, it has to be pretty simple experiments, the equipment has to be fairly simple. The chemicals have to be simple, not expensive. With Labster, you’re allowed to do experiments you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.”

When you’re talking about 3000 students, it has to be pretty simple experiments, the equipment has to be fairly simple. The chemicals have to be simple, not expensive. With Labster, you’re allowed to do experiments you otherwise wouldn’t be able to do.

Increasing learning through virtual simulations

Since incorporating Labster into his courses, Dr. St-Amant has seen how Labster can complement and enhance student’s learning. Every Labster simulation uses the Labpad as a learning device that students can refer to for instructions or read up on theory. Some of Dr. St-Amant’s students noted that the Labpad made the simulations “easy” as all the information was available. However, Dr. St-Amant thought that was great, “They are learning! The purpose is for them to learn and they are reading the explanation to find the correct answer. I think that’s actually a compliment to the product. They learn more as they’re going through it and they’re actually understanding as they proceed.”

The students are finding the Labster simulations more interesting. They’re learning things that they’re not learning in the lab.

Combining the physical and virtual labs also allows Dr. St-Amant’s students to get familiar with traditional labwork while also taking the time to understand the core concepts. “Sometimes in the physical lab, they just execute the recipe, collecting data and doing what they’re told. They only stop to think about it later when they write a lab report. The students are finding the Labster simulations more interesting. They’re learning things that they’re not learning in the lab.”

Learn more about how virtual simulations can engage your students by trying out a Labster demo.

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