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A Surprising Approach to Science Labs for Online Students Boosts Access to STEM Fields

A Surprising Approach to Science Labs for Online Students Boosts Access to STEM Fields


Rebecca Koenig
May 4, 2023
When it comes to teaching science courses online, colleges are getting creative. Institutions are using virtual reality programs to immerse students in laboratory simulations. They’re also mailing lab kits to students’ homes, enabling them to dissect cadavers on their kitchen tables, complete with whole specimens of sharks, birds and snakes, plus that old classic, frogs.
But for very good reasons, there’s still a limit to the kind of hands-on science coursework that colleges can, ahem, deliver remotely.
“USPS will probably kill us if we try to mail sulfuric acid,” says Ara Austin, a clinical assistant professor and senior director of online engagement and strategic initiatives at Arizona State University (ASU).
That logistical hurdle has prevented colleges from offering full online degree programs in core science subjects like chemistry and biochemistry. After all, if a science student hasn’t spent time actually producing reactions in a lab, Austin says, “they’re probably not going to be taken seriously out in the public,” limiting their success in graduate school or in the job market. In fact, some medical schools even refuse to consider admitting students with online coursework or degrees.
But ASU has an explicit mission to help more people access higher education — including, Austin says, students from low-income families and students from underrepresented minority groups. One strategy for doing that is investing in online degree programs. These options can make college more affordable and flexible, which often appeals to people who are older than age 25. Some of these adult students enroll in online programs having never gone to college before, but for many others it’s their second or third try, because they previously left higher education without earning a degree, either for financial or personal reasons.
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