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Flipping Lab Science with Remote Labs
by Jim Vanides

There’s a new way to buy more time for hands-on lab science - with some surprising benefits!
There’s a growing interest in “flipping the classroom” to support differentiated instruction, allowing students to explore and learn at their own pace, and for buying time to do more project-based learning in class. It’s a simple idea that I first heard from a Virginia Tech engineering professor about 8 years ago when he called it “turning the classroom right side up”. Whatever you call it, the principle is the same – save class time for the most important “live interaction” activities, and assign everything else as homework.
So far, the examples have mostly been about recording lectures or “how-to explanations” and allowing students to view these at home. The Khan Academy is often cited as an example of this, though many educators are using their convertible tablet/laptops and Techsmith “Camtasia” screen casting software to create their own.
Now the same idea can be applied to lab science.
With support from an HP Catalyst grant and the National Science Foundation, the Northwestern University Office of STEM Education Partnerships has been creating a collection of remotely accessible labs that can be used by high schools students via Project Access.


The project was originally conceived as a way to provide real, hands-on lab experiences to students who attend under-funded urban (or rural) high schools that are not equipped to offer lab science. These are not “simulations” or online “virtual labs”. Rather, Project ACCESS gives students access to real lab equipment that is hundreds or thousands of miles away. (see “iLabCentral” for a general description).
One of their interesting findings is how student interaction with the online remote labs is different than what you’d see in a typical on-site “classroom” lab. To start with, students are accessing the labs at very odd hours of the day and night. While 11pm may not sound appealing to us, it may be the most convenient for the student – and provide them the time to really sit down and explore.
Secondly, by tracking what the students are doing, the team at Northwestern has discovered that students often explore MORE than they would if they had been in a 50 minute lab section and simply followed the “recipe”. Surprisingly, the students are running MORE iterations of the experiments than one might expect – evidence of the much coveted 21st century STEM(+) traits of “inquiry and exploration”.
If you’d like to learn more about how remotely accessed science experiences can “flip lab science”, visit the “Science Lab Server Farms” project gallery page. 

Jim Vanides is currently a Program Manager in Philanthropy for Hewlett-Packard, responsible for worldwide higher education grant initiatives ( He also teaches an online course offered through Montana State University for elementary teachers on the Science of Sound ( He holds a BS in Engineering and a MA in Education, both from Stanford University.