There is a global deficit in the number of students enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) courses. While there are many factors that influence low STEM-enrolment rates, one key contributor is that STEM subjects tend to be expensive – making them ‘exclusive’.
Take chemistry-related learning as an example: Students require things like lab coats and sometimes even PPE (personal protective equipment) to conduct experiments. Laboratories also need to be equipped with various chemical compounds and equipment to enable students to run practical experiments. All this costs money.
Then, there is the risk factor, with practical lessons holding a degree of danger, should an experiment go wrong – with anything from fires to noxious gases being a concern. The time, money, and energy it takes to ensure safe practical experiments, decrease health hazards, and replace equipment damaged during failed real-world experiments can be significant, and not all students or institutions are able to carry these financial burdens.
These issues have led to a growing market for virtual chemistry labs. By undertaking chemistry labs online, students only require access to the software or an internet connection, and do not need to spend extra money on equipment. Similarly, institutions can save money and lower risk while still enabling students to conduct useful experiments and learn lab protocols in a virtual space.
Various studies have found that online chemistry labs are effective for preparing students for real-world experiments and growing their confidence in understanding chemistry-related concepts. By reducing costs and broadening student access to chemistry education, virtual labs are helping to democratise science education and empower more students to enter the field. Virtual labs are also available across other STEM subjects – not just chemistry – which means that more students are gaining vital opportunities to be exposed to STEM disciplines and becoming more likely to work in these sectors.