As an owner of a chemistry degree, I can attest to the fact that one of the biggest challenges I faced was enrolling in science laboratory classes because of tight space restrictions.

Now, in my home state, one university is looking to break science lab course bottlenecks, changing life sciences education by ending in-person lab experience for many non-majors. Ry Rivard of Inside Higher Ed reports:

The California State University System may bet big on virtual labs starting this fall, a sign of how heavily some policymakers are counting on technology to solve funding problems.

The effort could end in-the-flesh lab experimentation for many Cal State students who are not biology majors.

The proposal is part of a multipronged plan from the Cal State chancellor’s office to help students unable to find a path through the Cal State system. Officials are hoping to use a one-time infusion of $17.2 million for education technology to break the so-called course bottleneck that prevents students from advancing, prompts some to drop out and consumes state resources.

Officials have identified 22 bottleneck courses. Six of them are science classes, including biology courses where campuses struggle to find lab space and time for students. So, Cal State wonders: Can virtual lab software solve the problem?

According to a presentation by two Cal State administrators, “If 50 percent of STEM wet labs during a semester could be virtual, and the number of lab sections are doubled and filled, a campus will have a 100 percent increase in the capacity of their facilities.”

Robert Desharnais, associate chair of the biology department at Cal State Los Angeles, created a set of virtual biology courses a decade ago known as Biology Labs On-Line. Those virtual labs were designed to supplement traditional in-person labs, not replace them. One popular virtual lab developed at Cal State allows students to simulate fly breeding to experiment with genetic inheritance. But in a response to a request for proposals from the chancellor’s office, he suggested using his courses and other biology simulations as a way to end the life sciences bottleneck — and many students’ exposure to real lab experiments.

By using virtual labs, he estimated, Cal State could reduce personnel costs for one biology course from $25,000 to $9,600 or less by reducing the time instructors need to spend with students.