You may be faced with the challenge of teaching face-to-face, virtually or a hybrid. Explore the pros and cons identified by the breakout groups and review tactics to help you regardless of where you'll be teaching.  

Hands-On Labs

There was a clear consensus among the participants in the hands-on lab skills breakout groups that there is no substitute for doing hands-on labs. Aside from the obvious benefits of being able to physically handle instruments in the lab, there are several other advantages to hands-on learning. This list reflects the discussions that occurred at this meeting and is not a comprehensive list of hands-on lab skills.


Hands-on lab skills:

  • Developing safety skills
  • Record keeping
  • Manipulating glassware 
  • Weighing
  • Purifying materials
  • Conducting distillations
    • Running columns
    • Using instrumentation
  • Building instrumentation
  • Troubleshooting


Concerns about hands-on labs:

  • Concern that administrators will push for the elimination of expensive hands-on chemistry labs post COVID
  • Terminology can be confusing: Distinguish between virtual and hands-on rather than in-person (online/distance does not mean the same as virtual)
  • Group work: Difficult to collaborate from 6 feet away. But how can faculty help/assist without getting close?
  • Harder for TAs to interact in the laboratory setting
  • Concerned about the level of interaction

Hands-on skills compiled by CPT

The list of skills below was compiled by the ACS Committee on Professional Training (CPT)  to help programs develop lab activities during COVID-19, it is currently not part of the ACS Guidelines for Approved Institutions. Learn more about CPT's response to COVID-19 on the committee website, where you can find the full document on lab skills (PDF).

Analysis & Measurement

  • Working with glassware and balances
  • Working with real samples
  • Solution handling skills: making solutions, dilutions, pipetting
  • Making calibration curves
  • Titrations
  • Interfacing with instrumentation: software, hardware, awareness of the physical space and parts of instrumentation
  • Reporter assays for biochemical systems / in vivo or in vitro
  • Analysis of enzymatic properties, kinetic behavior, or protein structure-function

Synthesis, Characterization, and Preparation

  • Synthesis and preparation of different classes of molecules
  • Sample and reagent preparation (solution preparation, dilutions, purification, extractions, digestions, buffer preparations, etc.)
  • Air-free manipulations (Schlenk line, glovebox, air-free handling of sensitive reagents)
  • Purification - solvent selection, recrystallization, chromatographic approaches
  • Sample preparation for measurement on instrumentation
  • Glassware / reactionware selection
  • Safe handling of chemicals and appropriate disposal of waste
  • Standard protein and nucleic acid characterization methods (size, purity, identity)

Virtual or Online Labs

Teaching in a virtual or online lab setting offers a number of advantages while also raising a number of logistical, technological, and organizational questions. Breakout sessions identified the following benefits and concerns with virtual or online labs.



  • Can improve the time/cost ratio (some virtual experiments can have a big advantage) 
  • Can show things that are more “black box” 
  • Allows students to make observations without distractions or pressure
  • Allows students to take their time and repeat things
  • Allows students to “perform” experiments that might be too dangerous or cost prohibitive to do in the lab



  • Students getting sick and missing out 
  • Having to shift entirely online yet again and having a heterogeneous population.
  • Some of our population cannot get back to campus at all, so we will have an inherent inequity
  • Learning outcomes may need to be revised
    • For example, into Technical and Critical Thinking learning outcomes.
  • Twine - a choose your own adventure - goal to focus on theory.
  • Group work may be difficult to implement

What types of skills might be taught as well or better in a virtual or online environment?  


Identified by the breakout sessions:

  • Fundamental skills that help students learn concepts and can be used for future labs
  • Skills that mimic those in real labs:
    • Data analysis
    • Data presentation 
    • Record-keeping 
    • Lab note taking and organized records
    • Experimental design


Included in the ACS Guidelines for Approved Institutions (section 7):

  • Problem-solving
  • Critical thinking
  • Safety and hazard-assessment
  • Scientific integrity
  • Use of the literature
  • Writing and other communication skills

What lab motif would maximize and balance the lab skills taught in a virtual environment with those taught face-to-face?

  • Front-loading techniques labs in the beginning of  the term; analysis and writing at the end of the term
  • Simulations for safety 
  • Interpretation of spectra 
  • Mix of virtual/in person can allow for more depth,offline time could be used for skills such as writing, planning
  • Repurpose typical 3-hour time block for labs

Examples of virtual or online labs

The breakout groups identifed several techniques to use existing technology and resources to create online lab experiences.  

  • Bonding model simulations 
  • Teaching VSEPR can be done via PHET simulations, using JoVE technique videos for supplementing the face to face essential skill sessions.
  • Giving students data sets to work with that had been previously gathered by other students - analysis, calculations
  • Instrumental techniques (leverage software to control instruments)
  • NMR, IR, MS theory and data interpretation
  • Computational chemistry 
  • Computational (e.g. crystal structure)-asynchronous, with synchronous discussion/follow-up
  • Peer editing

Disclaimer: This event was designed to explore key questions regarding laboratory experiences and curricula. The opinions or views expressed in these discussions do not necessarily reflect the current statements and guidelines of the American Chemical Society, the views or opinions of ACS’s management or its members, or plans for renewed or revised policies. Chemistry departments seeking ACS Approval must continue to follow the ACS Guidelines for Bachelor’s Degree Programs as stipulated by the Committee on Professional Training, including those for laboratory instruction once their campuses resume face-to-face instruction without social distancing.