Lab Courses

Core Design Principles

This is an accordion element with a series of buttons that open and close related content panels.

Ensure equity and access

It is critical that all students can fully participate in the lab activities. This involves designing inclusive activities that do not favor some students over others and that represent a variety of ways to interact with lab materials. This likewise entails using asynchronous content delivery where possible when using remote delivery, considering student access to technology, creating accessible content and adapting accessibility requests for an online environment.

Maintain clear and consistent structure

Transparent, regular communication with students is required to support their learning and guide them through the lab environment. Clear expectations, lab goals, deadlines, and methods for asking questions and getting feedback should be reflected in your syllabus and throughout the structure of the lab environment.

Practice empathy while fostering student interactions

Students may feel overwhelmed about learning in the adapted lab format, concerned about where to find help and resources, or unsure how to connect in this environment. Be mindful of the environmental factors they might be experiencing and their concerns about workload or preparation for subsequent courses. Provide a clear and welcoming means for students to communicate concerns.

Design for safety

Everyone involved in the course should have a clear understanding of necessary safety protocols for at-home lab kits or on-campus experiences requiring physical distancing. Develop lab safety policies and expectations that are adapted to your lab context, and be prepared to think through and adapt activities if students cannot safely carry them out. Provide a means for students to voice their safety concerns and questions.

Consider the broader context of your discipline

Keep in mind where the lab fits into the overall curriculum or course sequence, as well as students’ career development. Students may need guidance or reassurance about how the remote lab meets accreditation or admissions standards for graduate or professional schools. Provide digital resources for departmental or campus advising services.

Planning & Design Resources

The following guidelines and resources highlight important considerations and specific ideas for planning and conducting lab courses remotely, as well as in physically distant environments. If you are considering recording demonstration videos or creating other media, view these available campus spaces for lecture recording and support.

Guidelines for Adapting Lab Curricula

These guidelines for adapting lab curricula pose guiding questions and important considerations.

Resource Database

A significant challenge to moving lab courses remotely is finding quality substitutions for in-person experiences. This resource database* includes an annotated list of simulations, visualizations, and more. *Please note that this is simply a list of resources. Resources are separated into two tabs:

  1. Low Risk: resources that do not require a fee, student log-in, or integration with Canvas
  2. Higher Risk: resources that require approval to assure cybersecurity and student data privacy.

Actual implementation at UW-Madison: assurance that campus policy concerning cybersecurity and student data privacy are met, integrations with other tools, and/or coverage of costs are separate issues that must be addressed. Please fill out this form if you wish to pursue usage of the higher risk resources in the second tab.

Remote Techniques to Achieve Lab Goals

Organized by learning goals, this list includes specific techniques and activities to achieve laboratory goals in remote or physically distant learning environments.

Activities for Learning the Scientific Process

This guide provides suggested activities for your course for each step of the scientific process.

Safety Considerations & Resources

Environment, Health and Safety, a unit with campus Facilities Planning and Management, has provided the following materials to assist in using at-home lab kits.

Guidance for Assessing Remote & At-Home Labs

If you are interested in allowing students to perform unsupervised experiments in a non-university lab setting, this document outlines questions and points of concerns that should be considered when evaluating remote or at-home lab experiments.

Hazard Identification and Mitigation Resources

This editable checklist helps you identify potential hazards associated with remote lab experiments.

Set up as an easily editable Word document with examples, this template can be used by departments to identify hazards for each work setting as well as risk mitigation strategies.

Campus Case Studies

This is an accordion element with a series of buttons that open and close related content panels.

Microbiology 102 Lab Summer 2020: In-Person to Remote Conversion

1. Lab core ideas and skills requirements

The lab covers techniques and procedures used in general microbiology, including cultivation, enumeration, aseptic techniques, physiology and selected applications.

As with other lab classes, there is both conceptual and factual information associated with these topics, as well as psychomotor skills needed to perform the techniques and procedures correctly and reliably. In a remote environment, students will be able to master the conceptual and factual components much more easily than the motor skills.

This might be the place for at-home lab kits or simulations. These were not chosen for Summer 2020 due to projected cost to students, possible unreliable delivery (i.e. kit companies are back-ordered right now), low quality of available kits and simulations, and immediate unknowns regarding safety and liability concerns. It is recommended to revisit this if long-term remote instruction becomes a necessity.

2. Learning outcomes

The learning outcomes are as follows:

  1. Students will understand basic laboratory techniques used in microbiology labs including: aseptic technique, staining and microscopic examination of cultures, quantitation of microbial populations, and interpretation of physiological tests.
  2. Students will learn methods to isolate bacteria from mixed populations and identify isolates.
  3. Students will develop hypotheses and think critically about experimental results and make valid conclusions about experimental results.
  4. Students will assess the scientific credibility of scientific sources.
  5. Students will effectively communicate scientific findings and ideas.

It is noted that the word “understand” is used in outcome #1 and this is probably not a specific enough term to convey the idea that in the in-person class students not only understand the techniques, but can perform them adequately, which is our standard for in-person instruction. This is the main challenge of a remote learning environment for Microbiology 102.

3. Assessment, activities and feedback

In-person Version

Microbiology 102 meets for one two-hour period per week. The course content is delivered mainly through a lab manual with 10 separate units. In addition to the lab manual, there are usually introductory lectures with PowerPoint slides, frequent instructor demonstrations, as well as person-to-person individual instruction. Most of the students’ time is spent engaging directly with microbiology materials (cultures, tubes, tests, plates, etc.).

Each week, students work through portions of the lab units, but typically, as in a real lab environment, they work on parts of multiple units simultaneously. So, in any given lab period, they would start one unit, continue another unit, and complete a third unit. This is also because it takes time for cultures to grow and so it wouldn’t be feasible to do most experiments from start to finish in one period.

Assessments include quizzes, exams, worksheet and practical assessment of experimental outcomes. Some of these are already done online through Canvas, but more are done in the classroom.

Remote Version

In the remote environment, course materials are delivered entirely within Canvas as follows:

The material is presented as “Modules” in Canvas. The students work through one module at a time, rather than using the overlapping format as described above for the in-person class. Each module corresponds to one unit in the Lab manual. All of the materials necessary for that unit are present and contained in the module. It was felt that this would be a more straight-forward way to present the class materials than to try to mimic the in-person class schedule of overlapping units.

Each “Module” is divided into “Materials” and “Activities.”

  • The materials are:
    • Canvas Pages with embedded readings (reformatted lab manual units)
    • PDF files (reformatted lab manual units)
    • Videos (described below)
  • The activities are:
    • A practice document with sample data and discussion questions to work through, with answers at the end. This may include analysis of experimental results from looking at images of plates or tubes, or watching videos and commenting on them or answering questions about them.
    • A module discussion board to ask questions, with instructor feedback daily.
    • A module activity pertaining to that module’s content. This is a graded activity.
    • A quiz. This is a graded activity.

Students work through the materials at their own pace and then do the activities. Feedback on the practice document, discussion board, and module activity are given to students before they need to take the quiz.

4. Lab learning environment

In-person Version

All materials were present for the students in the laboratory classroom. Course materials were provided to them or available on Canvas.

Students typically work at a bench that seats four students. Each student is teamed with a lab partner for some work, and sometimes the entire bench (called a pod) works together as a unit. So, there is a significant amount of peer-to-peer learning.

Remote Version

All Materials will be presented on Canvas. Students are teamed up in Group Discussion Boards for some activities, to try to simulate the peer-to-peer learning that occurs in the classroom.

5. Materials and technology

In-person Version

All materials were present for the students in the laboratory classroom. Course materials were provided to them or available on Canvas.

Remote Version

We are developing a series of specialized video demonstrations of the techniques that students would normally perform in the lab. These are made by Microbiology Instructors in the Department of Bacteriology. There are generally 2 to 3 videos per module. The videos are short (about 10 minutes) and they walk the students through all the instructions for a technique that the student would normally get in the lab, as well as an actual demonstration of the technique. In addition, when available, links are provided to externally produced videos as supplemental information.

This was felt to be the best way, given the short amount of time that was available, to try to provide some instruction, albeit second-hand, on the physical and motor skills involved in the lab. We favored a video style that showed the demonstrator talking to the camera, rather than a style filming disembodied hands, as is common in instructional videos. It was felt that this was a more personable approach. Supplemental videos from other instructors or the internet are included when appropriate to give an alternative view (e.g. close up view, alternative protocol).

6. Interactions

In-person Version

Students work at lab tables in groups of four. They may do work as individuals, as a pair, or with the entire table. All homework and assignments are completed individually.

Remote Version

Three times during the course there will be group work activities, to simulate the group environment that is normally present in the classroom. In these activities, students are presented with a set of data to work through as a group. Group discussion boards are set up in Canvas for this purpose. The group discussion board is a graded activity here, to facilitate student participation and interaction. All interactions are designed to be asynchronous.

Additionally, each module has a discussion board as a place for students to ask questions and for students to engage with each other about the materials. It is hoped that students will use each other as a resource for working through the materials; this is yet to be seen.

7. Student support

In-person Version

During the summer, the course has only one instructor and no teaching assistants. The class size is small and the instructor can provide personalized feedback to all students (20 to 28 students enrolled in a typical summer). The instructor grades all assessments and provides all instruction in the classroom.

During the semester, when there are multiple sections of the course, there is one graduate TA and one undergraduate TA per section (approximately 40 students).

Remote Version

The course has only one instructor and no teaching assistants. The class size is larger (45) and all student support will be conducted through Canvas. A discussion board is set up for each module. A grader has been provided to assist with grading the assessments.

8. Student experience, communications and usability

In-person Version

In-person communication between student and instructor is through frequent direct interactions. The protocols are fully described in the lab manual, but demonstrations and PowerPoint lectures in the classroom provide additional instruction.

Remote Version

There is a module (“Module 0”) that is the course orientation module. This includes a course overview page, a video introduction of the instructor, technical resources needed, students support available, and a general discussion board for questions.

Use of the Announcement feature on Canvas will feature prominently in the course. Students will get a weekly announcement outlining that week’s materials and activities, and there will be supplemental announcements about individual topics.

Each module has the same format, the same deadlines and the same structure.

The course is delivered asynchronously so that students can engage with the materials as it fits into their schedule. Technology is kept to a minimum and there are no assessments where students have to use new or unfamiliar technology.

BME 201: Biomedical Engineering Fundamentals and Design - Mechanical Testing Module

Traditional Lab Overview


(50 min, 100 students, 1 class period) 

Active learning in WISCEL covered the theory of the topic, students worked in groups on a sort problem set near the end of the lecture. Attendance was required and assessed through notes present in LabArchives timestamped during lecture (or an email from the instructor providing an excused absence with notes taken from the slides).


(3 hours, 20-30 students, spanned 2 class periods) 

Students worked with their design team groups (5 people) and performed the laboratory exercise published in LabArchives. This module utilizes an expensive piece of equipment thus groups would rotate through utilizing it and other activities over two class periods: the first being how to set-up the instrument and safety considerations and the second running an actual test on their own samples. The last hour of every lab period was dedicated time for the groups to apply the lab concepts to their guided design project.


Prelab quiz, assignment (testing protocol), and analysis of testing results

Modified Virtual Spring 2020 Overview


(20 min asynchronous captioned video)

Assessed through notes taken in LabArchives as before timestamped before their lab period.


(Designed to be ~1 hour asynchronous, 3 hours of optional synchronous lab time was scheduled during their regular lab period using BlackBoard Collaborate in Canvas)

A brief greeting and introduction was given during the synchronous time, however, all replacement materials were provided in an organized Google Slides document that could be completed independently. Breakout groups in Blackboard were used to arrange the synchronous period and instructors would check in with groups periodically or when a hand was raised. Collaboration within groups was permitted. Sample data was provided.


Prelab quiz, post-lab quiz, assignment (testing protocol), analysis of sample data

1. Lab core ideas and skills requirements
    • Identify the key components and functions of the MTS machine
    • Understand all safety considerations for testing using an MTS machine
    • Develop a testing protocol using engineering standards
    • Perform a compression test of a biomaterial sample using the MTS machine
    • Analyze the data obtained from the test and relate the results to material and mechanical properties

Students are unable to “perform” the physical test in the online environment. They are required to perform similar tests in a required future course and possibly in their future design courses depending on their projects. The replacement activity was designed to prepare students with the knowledge to perform the required test. We are also addressing this by offering future optional sessions with the machine when we return to non-distanced learning.

2. Learning outcomes
    • Develop and conduct appropriate experimentation, analyze and interpret data, and use engineering judgment to draw conclusions
    • Acquire and apply new knowledge as needed, using appropriate learning strategies

The word “conduct” was reviewed in the learning outcome for this lab as the students were not physically able to touch the machine, change components and run the test themselves. While we were able to replicate this environment as best as possible and make the activity enjoyable, a lot is learned by actually touching the machine. We felt it was still important that our students be able to “conduct” this experiment on their own and thus we did not revise the learning outcome.

3. Assessment, activities, and feedback

In person, this module started with a live active learning lecture session that covered the theory followed by hands-on experimentation sessions that took place over portions of two lab periods. During these sessions, student teams of five were given a live demo and were required to interact with the testing machine to change components and set-up a test. They were assessed by an individual assignment – write their testing protocol for the following lab where they implemented it to test their samples, collect and analyze their data.

The revised online module addressed the same lab core ideas, learning outcomes and utilized the same assessment tools with an added short online post-lab quiz. No suitable independent existing online replacement could be found. The active learning lecture was replaced with a 20 min recorded lecture. The lab period was condensed to one lab session (parallel activities moved to a separate week). We recorded short video clips (~1 min with no sound) and took photos of using the machine and its components. These were organized into a Google Slide presentation with videos converted to gifs for accessibility and ease of viewing. We included text in the slide to describe the animation and thus no audio or captioning was necessary. Students were presented with questions and decision trees regarding the application of the lab to their design application. A post-lab online quiz (auto-grading in Canvas) was added to assess their understanding. Feedback was provided on their testing protocol before the next lab session (same as in-person). Sample data from previous years were uploaded to Canvas as students were not able to make their own samples and collect their own data. Feedback on the analysis of this data was provided as before.

4. Lab learning environment

The lab schedule for the course mimics the outline in Canvas. Both of these were updated to reflect the online environment. Both before and after the switch, Canvas acted as the hub to all information for course and it was organized by module topic. The Google Slides “lab” activity acted as the virtual lab space. It was integrated into this module and was designed to complement the existing LabArchives laboratory exercise/lab manual.

5. Materials and technology

See above – all materials were organized in Canvas that mimicked the existing course structure. The single addition of the Google Slides Lab activity, which followed the existing lab manual, created a one-for-one substitution of one technology for the physical space.

6. Interactions

All activities were designed to be asynchronous. Students could receive synchronous support through BlackBoard Collaborate in Canvas during the regular lab time (optional) to allow the students to interact with their teams and instructors. Breakout groups were used to organize the teams. Instructors regularly checked with each team and when they raised their hand. Collaboration between individuals in group was permitted and encouraged.

Near 100% attendance for all 100 students and sessions. Students greatly appreciated the scheduled time to interact with both us and their peers.

7. Student support

The course has three instructional tiers: Lead instructors, teaching assistants and student assistants. We meet once per week as an instructional team to review roles and responsibilities for the following week. This continued virtually as well. All individuals assigned to a section were present in their Blackboard lab session.

Office hours were maintained at the same time, but moved to online web conferencing and email.

8. Student experience, communications and usability

The course was restructured so the first module after spring break became a trial week with a light content load that was easiest to move online and stay consistent. Each module was tested by upper class students who had taken the course to gauge accessibility, user experience and content.

A weekly email communication was added to the course that outlined both the coming week’s activities in more detail and a brief outline for the remainder of the semester’s virtual activities.

An online survey at the end of the first module and at the end of the last module confirmed our approach to online lab delivery.