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5 Ways to Make Experimental Design A More Approachable Topic

Akanksha Saxena
Teaching with Labster
October 18, 2022

Introduction: Experimental Design

The research world is an entirely different zone to be in. It doesn’t work as per your beliefs. It doesn’t care about your personal whims and fancies. It has some basic rules that each young or seasoned scientist must follow. These are called ‘research methodologies and ethics’.

When students newly enter scientific research labs for graduate courses and further research activities, they are taken aback by the meticulously laid out formats following which one designs their experimental plans. While we all have our ideas and opinions which are celebrated in science, we are taught how to test the truth behind those ideas and opinions. And this is where the journey of a young scientist kicks off!

The experimental design allows one to incorporate as many variables as one wishes to test. This gives researchers the freedom to delve deeper into the topics and provide novel findings to the world through the medium of their research work. Several new concepts are introduced to students under the umbrella of experimental design. When young learners understand the importance of all of these concepts and apply as many concepts as they can in their work, it makes their findings stand the test of time, rigorous peer reviews and garner acceptance from both academia and industries.

With a lot in the box regarding experimental design for young learners, this topic can sometimes be a little too much for them. Educators introducing students to the world of research are sometimes in a dilemma of what and what not to teach. Teaching less won’t shape the students properly and teaching too much would be equivalent to spoon-feeding. Striking for a perfect balance can naturally sometimes be hard for educators when delivering the idea of experimental designs.

We, at Labster, understand this problem faced by students and teachers alike. In an ode to making the future generation of scientists well-equipped and confident in the scientific designing of their experiments, we have narrowed down the major problems faced by students to three. We try to highlight them so that educators can pay due attention and cater to their respective needs.

We also list practical solutions that educators can put to use in their next classes. Having scientific ideas is very different from executing those ideas. The latter deserves immediate attention and we aim to maximally resolve this issue. By the end of this article, we’ll convince you why a virtual lab simulation will prove wondrous not only for your students but also for you as an educator to deliver concepts more efficiently.

3 reasons why Experimental Design can be tricky to teach or learn

There are 3 major reasons why students are overwhelmed by the topic of Experimental Design. Acknowledging these issues is the first step toward making the topic more approachable. 

1. Too many rules

When students are introduced to the experimental design, usually it comes to them as a “rulebook” that they need to abide by. For young learners to whom the rationales behind these small intricacies haven’t been explained, it can feel like a very ‘restrictive’ way of doing science. Students from high school and university levels enter research labs dreaming to innovate something but the idea of experimental design without knowing its importance tends to kill all their enthusiasm. They are taught to play by the rules. And who loves rules?

2. No time for proper mentorship

Many students are introduced to the topic of experimental design without educating them about its importance. Though they are made to look at the brighter side, the lack of reason and rational approach makes it look worthless. This clear lack of mentorship bereft them of the potential that they have to do science and innovate.  Not knowing how to practically approach a scientific problem in the lab, design your experiments in a way that can take care of the major issues, or make sense of the collected data can be very uncomfortable situations to be in. Many students are particularly unmotivated to do good science because of this reason. Lack of mentorship is reflected in the lack of scientific aptitude, temperament and incompetence in building meaningful hypotheses in the students. 

3. A lot of new ideas 

Students new to research and independent lab handling are sometimes unaware of the concepts of ‘null and alternative hypothesis, ‘hypothesis testing-accepting or rejecting the null hypothesis, ‘experimental or model organisms and factors to make an informed choice for the same’, ‘importance of controls and its types-negative, positive controls’, ‘importance of replicating experiments- biological replicates vs technical replicates’ and many more similar concepts. Ignorance of these concepts can harm the way science is practiced. It can make scientific experiments unreliable and irreproducible. 

5 ways to make Experimental Design a more approachable topic to understand

To address the issues encountered while teaching Experimental Design, educators can engage the under-listed solutions in their next classes. These can clarify many instrumental aspects of the topic and help them build strong foundations over which the science of the future will rest. Not only can they make teaching easier for educators like you but will also make lessons clearer and easier to assimilate for your students.

1. Explain its importance

Explaining the importance of experimental design can be a very good way to begin the discussion in your next class. Experimental designs have “several components” around which different rules have been set. You can take an advent and explain the importance of all those components. This little exercise will help your students appreciate and recognize the importance of the rulebook.

  • Variable Factors: This is one of the most important components of experimental design. There are several “dependent”, “independent” and “controlled” variables that are important to study the effect of changes on our model system. Knowing the difference between these can help your students in the appropriate selection and tuning of factors for an experiment. 

  • Hypothesis: This is another important component of experimental design. Usually, several ideas pop up in our heads when we encounter a scientific problem or a gap in some research work. To work out that problem, we first need to formulate a hypothesis. There are usually 2 hypotheses that one needs to frame; “null hypothesis” and “alternate hypothesis”. Educate your students on how one accepts and rejects (fails to accept) the null hypothesis. 

  • Controls: Controls are another important and non-negotiable part of a good experimental design. When you’re studying the effect of a variable on a system, you must have a “control” in place. Controls help us navigate and reaffirm if the changes/no changes are really due to the fine-tuning of variables or not. Educate your students about the “treatment versus control comparisons” to make a final call. 

Setting controls is very important to conduct a scientifically sound experiment. As mentioned by John S Torday and František Baluška in their paper ‘Why control an experiment?’ published in 2019, the importance of controls is undeniable.

“… once we began our formal training as scientists, the greatest challenge beyond formulating a testable or refutable hypothesis was designing appropriate controls for an experiment.”

experimental design virtual lab 2

Figure:An interactive snippet from the Experimental Design simulation from Labster. It is available for High School, University/College and Professional courses.

2. Take it slow and promote healthy discussions

It’s important that your students feel free to question and seek answers to the ideas that are being delivered to them here. So, we recommend educators promote a culture of open discussions where students aren’t looked down upon for any type of queries or doubts. 

As a scientist, one can have a very simple problem or a very complex one; it depends solely on how one approaches it. So, giving time to your students to slowly assimilate the notions being taught in the class would be highly beneficial in the long run. 

Explain the ideas in an easily understandable language. We know that academia and particularly scientific terminologies are hard to simplify, but that’s the job of educators. We leave you with an example that you can explain in your next class.

Example-1: “Replicates, types and importance”

In scientific experiments, the value of replicates can never be overemphasized. A replicate is a repetition of our experiment with the same setting, same variables, and same conditions and treatment. They are important to ensure that the new changes that are observed after an experiment has resulted due to the variable (modified factor), or is it just due to some other random condition? Several replicates are commonly used, biological and technical replicates being the most important ones. Usually, the number of replicates is restricted to 3 or 5. 

Example-2:Hypothesis testing

Scientific hypotheses are ideas and notions believing in which scientists begin their work. These are tentatively considered the “best available explanations” for a particular research question. Explain to your students that until their proposed scientific ideas have withstood the test of time and in-depth inquiry, they cannot be considered to be the final word. This fosters in them a scientific temperament and permits the conduct of the real scientific study. Demonstrate to your students how a hypothesis's formulation and objective evaluation aid in the development of "TRUE experimental conclusions”.  

3. Make it more interactive with classroom activities 

Engaging your students in small classroom activities can be another way to help them understand the idea of experimental designs. Educators can help their students navigate through the problem scientifically. Here’s a stepwise example.

  1. Teach them to “ask a question”.

  2. Guide them in developing a testable hypothesis.

  3. Help them choose an apt experimental model.

  4. Educate them about the proper selection of variables and controls.

  5. Navigate them through the real performance of an experiment.

  6. Make them capable of analyzing their results.

  7. Teach them the importance of replicating their experiments, so “repeat it all over again”!'

scientific method diagram

Figure: Flowchart showing how experimental designs should be built. Image Source

4. Explain the importance of common terms

Several terms are common to all experimental designs, whether it be biochemistry, botany, zoology, or medicine. We provide a few examples that you can explain and discuss in your next class. 

  • Model organisms or Experimental models

  • Reliability versus Reproducibility versus Repeatability 

  • Positive versus Negative controls

  • Research Methodologies and Ethics 

5. Use virtual lab simulations

Since students often find it hard to assimilate so many novel ideas at once, the topic of experimental design and its components can be quite taxing for them. To make the class interesting and free-flowing for your students, we encourage modern-day educators to use the Experimental Design simulation from Labster.

Using this active way of teaching students, you can overcome passive engagement and convey deeper ideas to your students by offering them visually dynamic video graphics options. Young scientists must establish their scientific aptitude and research temperament at a young age.  This could pave the way for science that transforms the globe in the upcoming decade. Our gamification features and interactive simulations are revolutionizing the way science is taught in classes. 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”. 

experimental design virtual lab

Figure:An interactive snippet from the Experimental Design simulation from Labster. It is available for High School, University/College and Professional courses.

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

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