Late Nite Labs provides realistic, online science lab simulations in biology, chemistry, microbiology, and physics. The Late Nite Labs library includes around 10-20 different labs in each subject area. The platform allows instructors to set up experiment modules (equipped with instruments, materials, and texts) and students to work at their own pace and in their own time.
Some of the experiment settings are realistic—for example, when irradiating bacteria samples in the UV Light Box, 60 or 90 seconds pass in real time. Others, like the 12-hour incubation period, are sped up to allow students to get on with the rest of the process. The feedback is also somewhat realistic: running used spreaders and rods through flame shows some burning to indicate sterilization, and discarding a lit Bunsen burner into the waste bin results in an explosion. (Fortunately, it’s not devastating, so you can continue on with the experiment.) Even though the experiments and results are simulated, the virtual environment reacts in a realistic way and results are affected by how well you follow the lab procedures. Whether you conduct a perfect experiment, make mistakes, or take another path entirely, different approaches will yield different outcomes.
On the other hand, sometimes the feedback is less obvious. For example, when running a slide through flame to heat-fix a bacterial smear, it’s hard to tell if you’re actually hitting the flame, or if you’re missing the mark and failing to trigger the process. There are also times when the set-up seems a little buggy—at one point, the water bottle wouldn’t activate on the slide or in the beaker, so I couldn’t complete the washing process for the Gram stain part of an experiment. Finally, there’s just something very unexciting about watching a few green pixels turn into black pixels, as opposed to actually witnessing real chemical decomposition.
One of the points that Late Nite Labs makes is that it allows instructors and students to spend less energy on logistics and more on science. Although virtual labs can be a highly effective way to teach students to manage and manipulate data, there are some experiences that seem better suited for real world, hands-on activities. Physical labs involve a tangible investigation process that isn’t present in virtual labs, but they do demand more space, instructor time, and infrastructure than a simulated one. Simulated labs also have the potential to reach larger numbers of students, and can be used to supplement a physical lab course.
Late Nite Labs seems less acceptable as a standalone for students doing advanced science coursework, who likely need and want to develop real world lab skills. Even novice or first-year science students are probably better off with at least some physical lab time: it’s hard to imagine sparking a love of science with a computer simulation.
Overall, Late Nite Labs is probably best for blended learning environments, where students have the opportunity to run unlimited simulations as well as real-world experiments. As a supplement to a wet lab, virtual labs can provide students and instructors with much-needed flexibility—Late Nite Labs could be a great option for missed lab classes, extra practice time, or experiments requiring specific equipment not otherwise available. Distance learners or home-schooled students who lack access to a science lab can also benefit from reasonably affordable simulations like Late Nite Labs.