Teacher Tips: When Do I Do Online Labs?

December 6, 2021

Welcome to Teacher Tips, a blog series by Linda Detwiler, our customer success manager and former chemistry and physics teacher. In an effort to increase the newsletter access to teachers, we have moved the longer messages out of the emails and added them to our blog. Join us for your weekly tips and tricks for all of your classroom needs.

Let's start by looking at FORCES! This is perhaps one of my favorite units in AP Physics 1. (Behind simple harmonic motion. Seriously, it's a shame that it's such a small portion of this exam.) The students survived their first exam. They know a little more about what is expected of them. They are starting to feel like they know how to study for the class. This is the unit where the fear of physics has worn off, and we start to have fun. It's just a more comfortable experience.

I do A BUNCH of labs in this unit. Okay, so that's not really a surprise. I do a bunch of labs in general. Even though I can do all of these labs physically in my classroom, I like to do several of them on Pivot, even before the pandemic. (Looking at you, modified Atwood machines...)

"Now, Linda: you say you did labs online before the pandemic?! What do you mean?"

Yeah, so let’s think back to November 2019. It was a simpler time back then. I was teaching my run-of-the-mill AP Physics 1 class. And… I was doing an online lab with my AP Physics 1 students. In November 2019!!! Way back then, we called it “blended learning.” And, it was really popular! And it was proving to be effective! But, I still had to contend with the online vs. in-person struggle. 

Four Reasons I Did Labs Online (And Why I Also Did Them In Person)

#1 Sometimes, I don’t want to set up a lab. 

I’m *specifically* thinking about this one: 

I don't do modified Atwood’s in person. Part of it is a severe lack of tracks for building this device, and part of it is a severe lack of time for building this setup. Either way, I have always used an online activity for this. Personally, I like that I didn't need sensors or anything fancy for this: I can give a class of 30 students the same activity as its in-person version (and every other online activity I ever wanted) for less than the cost of *one* track set up for this one lab. My time is valuable. When you have multiple preps, spending an 1+ hours setting up a lab that will last about 30 minutes just isn't worth it. My set up time needs to be less than 10% of my usage time. So, if I'm gonna use it for 5 classes (300 minutes), I am willing to spend 30 minutes setting it up. THAT'S IT. If it takes longer than that, it's not happening.

#2 Sometimes, I don’t want to grade a lab. 

Meet the Vector lab that I think nearly every AP Physics one teacher has used for years. It’s the PhET simulation discussed in the CED. I do this lab during my kinematics unit. College Board puts this in their dynamics unit. *shrug* I find that my students understand "x and y components" for 2D motion once you explain vectors. But, if you didn't cover this topic in kinematics, they're going to need it now. I've been using this PhET ever since I found it in an APSI several years ago. It's easy; it's intuitive; it's colorful. Downside: my worksheet was just one more thing for me to grade.

Guess what?! This activity AUTOGRADES. Yeah. WAY better. Oh, and you can now stick the simulation on the left side using the Show Split Question View button at the top of the page. Really nice! It's the same experience I've had for years, with less work for me.

#3 My in-person data blows.

I’m kinda mean to my kids sometimes, but in a loving way. This is the classic circular motion lab; I’ve seen it done with airplanes, pigs, cows… someone even showed me a bat version that they got at a Halloween store. Every year, I have my students set up the “Flying Pig” lab, and they’re tasked with finding the velocity of the pig. And they STRUGGLE. It’s a hard lab to do data collection for; they even end up doing video analysis for the time component anyways. But, I want them to think through the data collection process, so I give them access to the lab and I hook that flapping pig to the ceiling and I let them struggle. But…. their data isn’t that great. They end up getting a huge variation in their velocities. I see this with a lot of my circular motion and rotation labs: the data just isn’t amazing. So, I do qualitative/quantitative labs. Essentially, my students do the exercise of setting up the lab and getting data, but they don’t analyze that data. They explain how they WOULD analyze it. Then, we use labs like Pivot Interactives’ Airplane on a String to get the ideal data set. Analysis and conclusions are written from the ideal rather than tackling the mess of the in-class data.

#4 I have a sub for (insert reason here).

Prior to the COVID closures in March 2020, I had missed *31* days of school. (2019-2020 was a bit of a mess for me.) Four conferences, a child with cystic fibrosis, a nasty flu season, and an unexpected gallbladder removal meant that my students needed to have a substitute teacher in there with them. Sub days are school days: I need learning to happen even when I’m not standing over them. That’s where online labs can really shine. Because I had already introduced my students to online labs early in the year, when I needed to leave the room, I knew I could leave a lab for my students to do. Online labs are safe, engaging, and educationally significant: it’s a win-win all around. So, if you need a day, take one and let your students explore science while you handle life.

When do I do in-person labs? 

Pretty often, actually. I still recommend and do labs and activities that DON’T use Pivot Interactives. 

  • We still do the buggy lab in kinematics. 
  • I still do “May the Force be with Mu” (a friction lab) in Forces. 
  • I still do ball drops and jumpers and twirling, spinning demos of doom. 

I still do in-person labs almost every week. In chemistry, I have a month where we do lab work nearly every day. I want my students to have a break from technology and practice working with humans away from computer screens. Plus, sometimes, technology isn’t the best way—computers crash. Batteries die. The internet works on its own schedule, and I have absolutely no control over that. And, in case you didn’t know, you can melt technology. (Like how I melted a Chromebook… on accident… with acetone… during a thermodynamics demo… Hint: I’m the reason schools have technology insurance.) Your device is not always the most reliable thing...

It’s all about balance (check out an example of a well-balanced unit plan here). If you only do in-person labs, you miss out on the educational and personal benefits of online labs. If you only do online labs, students burn out, and you set yourself up for failure when the internet decides not to work. It’s all about having a blended, balanced classroom where no one thing gets overdone. 

Each trick and change keeps the class from growing stale and keeps your kids learning.