COVID-19 Forces Science Labs Online and in Homes

Apr 15, 2020

School closures under COVID-19 presented a big problem for the biology faculty at Moraine Valley Community College, located in the Chicago suburbs. The challenge: how students can complete lab work without access to a science lab.

Illinois suspended in-person classes in March, potentially disrupting everything from graduations to financial aid disbursements. But the state also approved college credit for courses completed online.

So department chairwoman Sandra Gibbons and the faculty members at Moraine Valley used video conferences to plan out how to take curriculum online by the time classes resumed March 23. They discussed the technology at their disposal. It just so happened that a group of about 50 biology students were testing products from Hands-On Labs, a company that offers at-home lab kits coupled with online instruction and assessments.

The other Moraine Valley students will finish spring semester with online simulations developed by the faculty. Come summer, assuming enrollment numbers stay consistent, the department will implement distance biology classes for 350 students using Hands-On Labs equipment. “We’re teaching as close to real, traditional teaching as possible,” says Gibbons, now in her third year as department chairwoman.

The sudden jump to online learning has upturned education disciplines around the globe. But in the world of science education, the lack of lab access has led educators to seek alternatives. The marketplace is home physical lab kits, digital substitutes and other products that mix both mediums.

“I’m pleased by the way the business is performing, but I still wish we didn’t have COVID,” says Tim Loomer, CEO of Hands-On Labs’ parent company, Science Interactive Group.

A Hands-On Labs video on assembling a skeleton at home

Students and Families Seek Kits

Loomer says Science Interactive had fortunately made changes to its North Florida warehouse earlier this year—before COVID-19 hit—to keep up with increased demand following an acquisition in December. “I no longer lose sleep over how fast my warehouse can build,” he says. “All eyes are on the supply chain, and I feel like today we’re in great shape.”

Based in Englewood, Colo., and a portfolio company of two private equity firms, Science Interactive has seen four times the number of current customers expanding and new schools coming online in April year over year.

According to Loomer, more than 100 new colleges have bought Science Interactive products since the pandemic. He doesn’t expect demand to decrease till the fall and is ready to increase warehouse productivity with temporary hires, longer work days or adding a sixth day of work if needed. The company has 250 full-time employees and hasn’t made any layoffs.

Students usually end up footing the bill, with product costs typically included in tuition or categorized as lab fees by colleges. The company has not implemented COVID-19-related discounts but has offered some digital options for free.

Among the new colleges Science Interactive has served, some already planned to introduce distance-learning options for students, while others only explored the option after their campus shut down, Loomer says. Some colleges have enlisted Science Interactive just to get through the semester. To support the wave of new users, the team has produced live and recorded training demonstrations.

Whether COVID-19 shifts how colleges offer distance education options for lab sciences in the long run remains to be seen, he says.

MEL Science, a London-based company whose products include chemistry kits for primary and secondary schoolchildren coupled with digital tools, has seen about seven times the number of new subscribers this month compared to April 2019, says CEO Vassili Philippov. “This will turn into a long-term interest, I hope,” he says.

Since schools closed, MEL has seen renewed interest from parents in search of a supplement to online learning. MEL has met order demand so far, but Philippov worries about potentially running out of stock for a couple of weeks in May. The company raised $6 million in venture capital last summer.

The company had planned to push to sell to schools this year, which has been put on hold. Instead, it has redirected its efforts to create an online academy of webinars and virtual reality lessons.

MEL built the academy in four days, has offered the product for free for the first three months and has more than 10,000 subscribers already. The company also has plans to launch a full-course program for students in case schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year.

A MEL Science chemistry experiment on YouTube channel Splat Kids TV

Let’s Get Digital

The boost in activity has come for digital-only science lab alternatives as well. This week, Copenhagen-based Labster announced a deal with California’s community college system, which is paying to offer its science lab simulations for free to 115 colleges, which altogether serve 2.1 million students, through the end of the year.

The deal gives students in one of the largest higher education systems in the country access to 150 virtual lab simulations in biology, chemistry, physics and general sciences. They are designed to work on low-end computers.

In a statement, the system’s vice chancellor of communications and marketing, Paul Feist, said California Community Colleges sought an online virtual platform that could integrate with the learning management system used by the colleges.

“Our goal is to allow students to gain access to realistic labs that enable them to perform experiments and achieve desired learning outcomes,” he said. He did not respond to a question about how much the system paid Labster.

Not every college in the system has jumped onboard. The Fresno Bee reported that Fresno City College won’t implement Labster because the product is not compatible with tablets and smartphones and not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Labster CEO Michael Bodekaer Jensen says the company has made greater accessibility a priority for this year and that the company provides text and image based backup services for students in the meantime.

While Labster has partnerships with physical kit providers, Jensen has resisted offering lab equipment directly through Labster. “When you start introducing a hardware component, you reduce access and scalability,” Jensen says.

So far in April, sales have grown tenfold compared to the same period last year, says Jensen. The company has added about 10 new staff to help provide support for educators and students now using the company’s lessons. The company now has about 110 full-time employees.

Labster raised $21 million in investment last year. One of its biggest costs so far have been server costs, and the company has had to quadruple its server capacity to support the increased usage from students. Labster expects to lose money getting so many schools online.

A look at the Labster interface

Gibbons, the Illinois biology educator, says that while such distance learning tools are needed right now, they won’t replace in-class labs in the long run. They can be useful as a backup in unplanned emergency scenarios, she says. And she also understands schools’ desire for simulations to avoid expensive equipment and dangerous chemicals.

But Gibbons says she’s also seen the limitations of digital tools. She says she’s taught students who previously used virtual simulations in high school and lacked basic lab skills like how to handle a pipette. She questions how science students can expect to land jobs if they’ve never handled thermal cyclers and other common lab equipment. “It won’t give people the skills to move forward,” she says.

Plus, students miss out on the full science class experience. “The fun part of lab is doing the experiments,” she says. “It’s more fun to do the cooking yourself instead of watching a cooking show.”


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