Considering Media Affordances When Designing STEM Hands-on Activities

Student works on STEM project with at-home science kit

It is well known that hands-on activities are an inseparable part of the nature of science. Experiments allow learners to understand and engage in a process of constructing knowledge by doing science.  Ideally, students work with real equipment, and there’s no doubt that experiments in a real, wet laboratory are the best.  But there may be some doubts. Nowadays, virtual science labs and online simulations have become an increasingly viable part of teaching and learning science. These media can provide unique active learning opportunities for students, visualization of scientific concepts, and development of basic scientific literacy.

I believe we can create meaningful activities with technology that adds value to face-to-face teaching, online learning, or any combination of these two. Tony Bates argues that technology is only one element of media, and it is really important to think about affordances of the media for educational purposes when designing activities. The following provides ideas on how you can design hands-on activities for successful science exploration, keeping these three characteristics of media in mind (Bates, 20xx):

  • Broadcast (one-way) or communicative (two-way) media
  • Synchronous or asynchronous technologies, including live or recorded media
  • Single or rich media


When designing a hands-on science lab, we can think of it in three parts: pre-lab activity, experiment, and post-lab activity. I would like to illustrate this by sharing an activity I designed for an introductory physics course called, “Ice Musical Instruments.”

During the pre-lab phase, learners are introduced to the lab and concepts that will be used or learned during the hands-on activity. For engagement purposes a video is great. It is a rich medium that combines visual and audio messages. I use this inspirational and educational video about Tim Linhart and his dream come true—Ice Music. In just four minutes, National Geographic tells a story about the Arctic spirit, discoveries and challenges, and physics and design where we can experience magical ice music, too. This pre-lab stage may be done synchronously or asynchronously. Additionally, live discussions are a great way to motivate students, support a community of learners, and provide an opportunity to point out the main ideas related to the activity ahead. A recording of the live event can be a good idea, too. This way students who missed class, or any students for that matter, can watch it again if necessary. If there is no time during synchronous sessions, do this pre-lab phase asynchronously. This can be done using a collaborative medium such as discussion forums or using a broadcast medium such as your Learning Management System to post the material and instructions.  

I like to use broadcasting to make sure that all students receive the same instructions and prerequisite knowledge. For this purpose, creating a lab report template works well. This is text-medium, not so rich, but appropriate in this case because it focuses students’ attention on the instructions. If you’d like to add richness, images such as diagrams of processes or concept maps are a good idea. When introducing theoretical concepts for the problem at hand, instructors may strategically use text. Again, this would not be as rich of medium compared to video, but it works well for providing students with basic information, definitions, and spelling of scientific terms.  

For the experiment part, you may choose to use a real experiment, or a combination of a wet lab and online simulation. Online simulations are a good way to do hands-on activities when there is no equipment available. I like PhET interactive simulations. PhET interactive simulations for science and mathematics is an Open Educational Resource that uses inclusive design approaches to design accessible STEM education. Learners can change parameters and observe the results. For my particular activity, I used a simulation on the states of matter and changes. This experiment can be designed as a guided experiment with direct instructions, or it can be a free exploration where the simulation records the results—this is an example of rich media.

From a learner’s perspective, rich media can be overwhelming because it may provide a lot of information in a short period of time.  When designing activities, we need to think about concepts such as cognitive overload and Vygotsky’ Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) (Bates, 2019). If students are presented with information at too complex of level or too quickly for them to properly understand, cognitive overload may occur. ZPD is the difference between what learners can do without help and what they can do with help. So, to design meaningful activities we need to know our students and prepare them for hands-on activities in any modality. The benefits of using an online interactive simulation as a rich medium can encourage achievable learning goals in science education that would otherwise be difficult to achieve with a simple medium such as a textbook. It may be a good idea to use online simulations as a prelab activity to reduce cognitive load. This can help students get ready for the real lab and help them conduct experiments more thoughtfully. 

Depending on your needs and capacities for the experiment part, you may use a real experiment in face-to-face classes, do-it-at-home science experiments, or a video of pre-recorded science experiments. An interactive video with pauses, questions, and small tasks adds richness to the medium and can help better meet learning goals. Interactive videos may be created with H5P for creating interactive HTML5 content.  

The post-lab activity is a really important part of the entire process. This is an opportunity for learners to share their inquiries with their peers and the instructor. It is also an opportunity to clarify what was unclear and apply knowledge to the real world. This part can be done synchronously as a whole class discussion or asynchronously through online discussion forums. I like to ask students to relate what they learned from doing this activity to real life. What media can we use for this task? We may ask students to write their answers in the lab report or to find a video or an article on the internet. You can add as much richness as is appropriate for your context.

Building connections with other topics in the course is valuable, too. I ask my students to identify other science concepts related to this activity. Although the activity is mainly about states of matter, we can also talk also about music, creativity, or we can relate the activity to ideas an architect would consider when designing a concert hall suitable for ice music. I ask students to explore online and find out what other materials are used for the creation of musical instruments—students are amazed by the variety! This exploration can be done synchronously or asynchronously. One benefit of doing this asynchronously is that every student has an opportunity to contribute, and learners can see what their peers have found and discuss their findings. I like to support peer-to-peer interactions as much as possible.

Technology-enabled teaching and learning, when implemented effectively, has the power to have a positive impact on teaching and learning but can have a negative impact when not implemented appropriately.

Elena Chudaeva has been with George Brown College, Toronto, for more than 10 years. Chudaeva has been developing and teaching technology enhanced face-to-face, blended, and online courses. Her area of expertise is math, statistics and physics. For past five years, she has been using both science simulations available as Open Educational Resources (PhET, for example) and science virtual labs from paid vendors (Beyond Labz) in teaching general education science courses. Chudaeva is interested in studying how science labs and simulations impact student learning, how to design science labs activities effectively for online and remote courses, and how to support students in using science hands-on activities. She has been actively involved in Universal Design for Learning initiative at her college, sharing best practices and supporting other faculty in their journey through UDL.


Bates, A.W. (2019). Understanding technology in education. In Teaching in a digital age. 2nd edition. (chapter 6)

PhET Interactive Simulations: