5 lessons that will prepare your students for real lab work

It’s a long jump from filling in bubbles on a biology exam to correctly operating a PCR machine. While having a theoretical foundation is important, practical laboratory skills are just as important, and much harder to find time and resources to teach.

Most high school teachers simply can’t take the time to teach lab skills, as they aren’t relevant to standardized exams. However, in our increasingly competitive world, it’s more and more difficult for students to gain access to a lab if they’re inexperienced, but they need to work in a lab to get that experience in the first place.
Students entering college completely unprepared for lab work are overshadowed by students with prior research lab experience, no matter how masterful their command of the written biology curriculum may be.
They might ace the biochem exam, but do they understand the importance of proper sterile technique?
In general, a hiring principal investigator tends to choose the student with some prior lab experience over the new student eager to learn, simply because that student has more experience with the underlying protocols and principles that govern lab work.
So how can you help? Incorporate practical lab skills into your curriculum. Here are 5 important skills to work on with your students before they apply for their first lab position:

1. Lab safety

The single most important element of lab work is vigilant adherence to safety protocol. Across the board, safety protocol in research labs includes:

  • Close toed shoes and eye protection
  • Keeping long hair tied back
  • No food or drinks near the lab
  • Do not leave experiments unattended
  • Only use equipment that you are trained and approved to operate
  • Always understand the fire safety and evacuation procedures

Lab bench with safety hazards
It may sound simple, but it’s easy to get lazy and cut corners. Even if your experiment doesn’t present any immediate danger, someone else’s nearby might. Students who are prepared to reliably follow safety rules demonstrate maturity and readiness for more advanced lab responsibilities. To learn more and practice lab safety skills, try our lab safety simulation for free.

2. Aseptic technique

Experiments are quickly invalidated by contamination. Students should understand that potential for contamination exists invisibly everywhere in the environment, even in the lab.
Teaching students the routine procedures for prevention contamination–known as aseptic technique–sets up a valuable scaffold for student thought processes in the lab, and encourages keen attention to detail. The more students think about and practice the aseptic technique, the more it will become second nature.
It’s difficult to give students a solid understanding of aseptic technique just through explanation, but with the bacterial isolation virtual lab, they can learn and practice the technique in an online lab setting until they achieve mastery.

3. Mammalian and bacterial cell culture

Growing cell lines and bacterial colonies is another fundamental part of lab research. Not every lab will use cells, but enough do that it’s helpful to have a foundation in creating and maintaining healthy cell growth environments before entering college. Make sure your students know what it takes to to keep cells alive and happy, including the role of agar, the effects of different temperatures, and avoiding contamination (aseptic technique again!).

If you don’t have the resources in the classroom to practice cell culture, students can play the cell culture virtual lab and get the same practical, interactive learning experience, as well as introductions to the machinery used in today’s labs to culture cells. They can also practice aseptic technique and plate streaking in the bacterial isolation virtual lab.

4. Gel electrophoresis:

Gel electrophoresis is another ubiquitous research lab tool technique, to which most high schools do not have access. If students are looking for experience in a biochemistry-related research lab, they will run into this process. Additionally, standardized tests including the AP biology exam do require students to understand what gel electrophoresis is, how it works, and what researchers can learn from the results, all of which are difficult to convey without practicing the technique.

Luckily, the polymerase chain reaction virtual lab includes a gel electrophoresis component that will ask your students to solve a murder scene using the technique. Students will emerge with a much clearer understanding of the procedures around pouring and running gels, including why it works and what it can be used for.

5. PCR

Speaking of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), pretty much every lab these days has a PCR machine. While students might not necessarily have to know exactly how the machine works to operate one in the lab, it definitely helps to have a basic understanding of what’s going on in there. Additionally, DNA amplification and specifically PCR comes up with relative frequency on standardized exams like the biology SAT subject test or the AP biology exam, so it’s definitely worth your time to cover it in class.

The exams will often incorporate questions regarding applications of PCR application questions, so you can give your students an advantage both in the lab and on tests with the polymerase chain reaction virtual lab, where they can learn about gel electrophoresis and PCR in an applied context.

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