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5 Ways To Make Counting Cells a More Approachable Topic

Akanksha Saxena
Teaching with Labster
October 18, 2022

Introduction: Counting Cells

Cells are the most basic units of life. Whether a prokaryotic or eukaryotic form of life, the most fundamental unit that sustains life-giving metabolism is the cell. This makes the studies around this unit quite interesting and important. Cellular biology or cytology is the subject that entails the different aspects of cellular studies.

Cells are the primary model for the evaluation of several tests, drugs, and novel techniques. They are used in the form of cell cultures to study how different chemicals and drugs affect the cell’s basic physiology and functioning. To check if a drug is perturbing the basic metabolism, one needs to take into account several factors. Explaining this science and the associated methodologies sometimes becomes quite a task for educators.

When students enter research labs working on cells, they sometimes have to face a range of challenges that they are unaware of. One is expected to know the theories pertaining not just to cells but also related to the required techniques and tools.

Despite being fascinating as cell studies are, students in schools and colleges find this subject to be complicated. Since this topic requires students to be pre-equipped with basic lab handling practices, hypothesis testing, and scientific methods, teachers often find it challenging to plan and deliver insightful lectures which cover all of these aspects.

We, at Labster, understand the complexities of this subject. This article can provide some help as it attempts to identify the major obstacles encountered by students whilst studying this topic. It also lists practical solutions that teachers and educators can incorporate in their next class. By the end, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will prove useful not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

Why can Counting Cells be tricky to teach or learn?

There are 3 reasons why students dread and get confused about the topic of Counting Cells. Acknowledging these blocks is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. It requires knowledge of scientific methods and lab practices

One can’t begin the cell counting exercise if they are unaware of the basic scientific methods. Students are often expected to perform lab experiments with utter precision when they are ill-equipped with common lab sense and handling practices. This needs to change and educators need to focus on teaching their students about GLPs(Good Lab Practices). Students often hesitate to begin lab work due to their inability to scientifically design their experiments and test their viable hypotheses. So many students are unaware of the vital importance of ‘experimental variables’, ‘experimental controls’ (positive and negative), and ‘replicates’ (biological and technical). Many students often stumble at the thought of ‘handling a microscope’ or ‘setting a pipette’ on their own.

2. Lack of knowledge about diverse topics

Cell counting is not simply one technique that students can learn in one session. It requires a seasoned scientific temperament and demands students to be aware of different topics like ‘cell cultures’, ‘staining and fixation techniques’, ‘different types of microscopy techniques, ‘choosing accurate pipettes’, ‘cell death/apoptosis assays’, ‘idea of fluorescence and use of fluorescent dyes’, ‘different types of model organisms, etc. Science experiments work at the junction of knowledge from different fields. Hence, planning and executing cell counting experiments requires one to rationally approach the problem, use their diverse knowledge systems and skill sets, and then work by applying the theory of each of these subjects to their practical lab exercises.

3. The dearth of interactive visual tools

Having trouble keeping up with too many unfamiliar concepts at once is a common concern among students. The problem is further aggravated by the reliance of educators on merely theoretical tools to deliver such ideas. It is common knowledge that the use of interactive tools and videos can be more effective in delivering concepts like pipetting, fluorescence visualization, learning about different model organisms, etc. Yet, educators and teachers are not able to switch to these options due to the unavailability of such tools in the public domain. 

5 ways to make Counting Cells a more approachable topic to understand

To address the issues encountered while teaching the topic of Counting Cells, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their classes. These can decode many different aspects of biodiversity. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you, but they will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Develop a scientific research temperament in students

This is our foremost advice to all science educators. The motive of intensive scientific expeditions and efforts should not bear a question mark in your students’ minds. Educators should clarify the vitality to remain unbiased and open to novel problems which is one of the best characteristics of science researchers. We list some of the ways by which you can try to develop a fine scientific temperament in all your students.

  • Emphasize the importance of Good Lab Practices (GLPs).

  • Strengthen the basic biology concepts.

  • Promote an interdisciplinary approach in your class.

  • Promote inclusivity and diversity in science. 

  • Highlight the importance of constructive criticism and revisions in work.

  • Break down the shackles of hierarchy in science.

You can quote the example of Chemistry Nobel Prize 2022 winner Carolyn Bertozzi who emphasized the importance of diversity, creativity, and thinking beyond the boundaries of conventional limits to innovate and bring meaningful science to the world. 

In Bertozzi’s words, “Diverse science is better science”!!!

2. Highlight the importance of experimental designs

Another important suggestion to all educators is to explain the importance of basic experimental designs. There are several topics that you can take one after another and emphasize the importance of each one of them to your students.

We list a few of them for you. 

  • Scientific designing of experiments (planning, experimentation, analysis) {You can use The Scientific Method simulation from Labster}

  • Hypothesis design and hypothesis testing {You can use the Experimental Design simulation from Labster}

  • Meaning and importance of “null hypothesis” and “alternative hypothesis”

  • The idea of experimental controls 

  • Importance of experimental controls

  • Positive versus negative controls

  • Idea of replicates

  • Importance of replicates

  • Biological versus technical replicates

  • The idea of experimental variables 

  • Dependent versus independent versus controlled variables

  • Different types of model organisms and their importance 

scientific method diagram

Figure: Flowchart showing scientific methods required for problem-solving. Image Source

experimental variables

Figure: Different types of experimental variables. Image Source 

3. Explain the different analysis techniques related to cells

After your students are clear about the basic science lab handling practices, it becomes important that you broaden their subject knowledge on the topic of cell counting. This can be done by talking in depth about each concept, test, and tool with examples. We list a few of them for you.

  • Discuss the importance of “Cell Death or Apoptosis Assay”: Cell death assays are used to measure cell viability. This is recorded as a direct function of ‘cellular and metabolic changes in the cell. The effect of various drugs in pharmaceutical and research labs are studied by counting the number of viable or nonviable cells, both before and after the drug treatment. Cell counting becomes the prime mode of testing in such scenarios. 

  • Discuss the importance of Fluorescent Dyes in cell death assays: There is a range of fluorescent dyes available for differentiating between live and dead cells. Explain the rationale behind the working of these dyes to your students. Making them understand how a dead cell with its disintegrated plasma membrane becomes more permeant and allows the entry of exclusion fluorescent dyes. This helps one to dye and distinguish the dead cells from live cells in a cell culture post-drug treatment. You can use the Fluorescence Microscopy simulation to explain how to visualize the cells after dyeing with fluorescent dyes.

counting cells virtual lab

Figure: A snippet from the Counting Cells simulation by Labster showing the incubator with suitable conditions for cell cultures. Full simulation is available for University/College classes.

4. Engage them in practical learning sessions 

Too much theory can come as a monotonous exercise for students. We recommend educators involve their students in more practical handling in the labs. Teaching them the underlying principles of equipment and instruments while they handle stuff can be more engaging and educational.

You can involve your students in several under-listed ways:

  • Pipetting: Teach them the science behind pipetting technique. Educate them about the different types of pipettes, their ranges, different parts of the pipette, the importance of resetting the pipettes after use, etc. You can use the Pipetting: Master the technique simulation and Pipetting: Selecting and Using Micropipettes simulation from Labster. 

  • Microscopy: Teach them the importance and evolution of microscopy techniques over the past 200 years. Educate them about the different parts, their respective roles, and sample preparation and visualization techniques. You can educate them about the use of microscopes in medical diagnostics to look for cellular abnormalities and aberrations. You can use the Microscopy simulation from Labster.

counting cells virtual lab 2

Figure: A snippet from the Counting Cells simulation by Labster showing the use of microscopes to visualize cells. Full simulation is available for University/College classes.

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since the topic of cell counting requires students to instill a range of skills and learn about novel concepts, it can become quite taxing if everything is textually taught to them. Sometimes the lack and unavailability of some equipment, instruments, and consumables can further cut short the lab handling sessions which are the sole source of interest in this subject.

To overcome these common challenges, we recommend that modern-day educators make the most of the Counting Cells simulation from Labster.  Your students can engage in a virtual lab activity where they investigate the effect of a novel drug on the cells. They can perform experiments with human cell cultures and test their hypothesis with a fluorescent cell assay. Since this is a virtual lab, there is room for mistakes and improvement. 

With virtual laboratory simulations from Labster, teachers can make more insightful points as students are rendered with better visual options where they can follow the different concepts in a free-flowing manner.

Your students don’t have to struggle anymore as our interactive Counting Cells simulation along with gamification elements will save the day for you. By using this way of active and immersive teaching, our virtual learning platform takes an advent in the field of Science to make the upcoming scientists thorough with the “basics of their respective subjects”. 

Counting cells simulation GIF

Figure: A snippet from the Counting Cells simulation by Labster showing the handling of cell culture. Full simulation is available for University/College classes

You can learn more about the Counting Cells simulation here or get in touch to find out how you can start using virtual labs with your students.

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