My Labster Experience: Suzanna Katz, Staten Island Academy

Staten Island Academy (SIA) became the first high school to use Labster VR last year when Dr. Suzanna Katz (The Science Department Chair and upper school STEM instructor) explored her options for teaching her students specific lab techniques with the typical equipment and time constraints of a school teacher.

“We started the pilot program with Labster this summer right before the school semester started.” Dr. Katz said. “It was actually the beginning of my job at SIA. I had recently finished my PhD degree. I was very interested in technology, and the intersection between technology and biology. I really wanted to integrate that into my new experience as a teacher.”

Read on to learn how Dr. Katz got started with Labster, and how she has used the laboratory simulations to get her Advanced Placement Biology students excited about the application of complex textbook concepts within a high-tech modern research laboratory.

The search for an online lab component

When Dr. Katz started as a teacher at SIA, she was told that her longest classes would be relatively short, which naturally made it more difficult to teach AP Biology topics: “It’s a long curriculum that I think is very difficult for most teachers to really get through while at the same time providing in-depth examples. Our longest class is an hour, and it’s very difficult to do certain labs in an hour, especially when you also don’t have the kinds of equipment that you see in a university setting.” But Dr. Katz was determined to expose her students to that experience. So she started searching for simulations online. “I had already heard about virtual reality, so I tried to look for a VR app that would have some sort of lab integration.”

One of the criteria that was important to Dr. Katz in her search was how the technology affected her students: “I wanted to get a more advanced device because I knew there was this risk of having a low frame rate that would make the students nauseous. And I thought that would be a disaster if I put a device on the kids that would make them feel sick!”

Dr. Katz honed in on the kinds of devices that would fit that criteria and that would also give her students an immersive experience. “I started leaning towards the standalone devices from Google because I wanted something that was easy to figure out, didn’t have too many moving parts, and could be used without difficulty with my group of kids. I also wanted something where there was potential for large adoption, and I had the faith that if you go with something like Google, they would also release more content. So that’s how I narrowed it down to the Lenovo Mirage Solo with Google Daydream. And then I saw that Labster was one of their apps and I checked it out! And I thought: that sounds perfect, that’s what we need! So I got in touch with Labster and that was how the pilot was born.”

The first high school to use Labster VR

“It went very quickly from there. I presented it to our school directors and they loved the idea of enriching the class experience in this way. The approval process went quickly and I was amazed at how little red tape there was in implementing such a new technology,” Dr. Katz explained.

"I presented it to our school directors and they loved the idea of enriching the class experience in this way."

Next step from there was to find out how the labs could be integrated into the curriculum. With help from the Labster support team, Dr. Katz got started soon after. “The idea that I could now get a complicated lab done within one single period or have them be able to finish it at home was really attractive.”

So SIA started the pilot program, making them the first high school to try Labster VR. “So that was exciting too. The kids were particularly excited about it, and they’d never seen anything like it. I think they also felt really special that they were chosen to do this,” Dr. Katz said.

Simulations that enable teaching university topics to high school students

Leveraging different educational technologies, Dr. Katz designed her course with an assortment of tools: “I definitely have a mixed media learning environment. I often start with some kind of visual or video to introduce them to the topic, just so they get a feel for the overarching ideas and principles. Then I do lectures where I go over the concepts in detail. As we progress in the topic, we’ll do in-class exercises or homework to solidify their knowledge. Then, once I sense they understand the concepts relatively well - we would do the simulation. That’s the general flow of it. So the simulations give them that cohesive feeling of the topic and expose them to applications of the concepts that would typically only be found in university settings.”

"It’s been really helpful for me as a teacher to use the virtual labs and get through topics that require visualization and physical practice."

Dr. Katz used the simulations to cover several topics, including Evolution, Polymerase Chain Reaction lab, RNA extraction, Viral Gene Therapy, Gene Expression and Gene Regulation: “We’ve been using it quite a lot. We went through a few simulations already and they really fit with our curriculum. It’s been particularly useful for our biotechnologies section, since we covered a range of devices and tools that are not typically available in high school settings, such as those they got to experience with the Stem Cell Culture lab or the Viral Gene Therapy lab. I definitely can’t give them a pluripotent stem cell experience or a viral gene therapy experience in a high school lab due to the cost and regulations involved in using those technologies. So it’s been really helpful for me as a teacher to use the virtual labs and get through topics that require visualization and physical practice. They are essentially getting a level of experience that I was not exposed to until my thesis work in graduate school. ”

Overcoming the challenges of new technology

Being a novel form of educational technology, the VR headsets did take some getting used to for Dr. Katz and her students: “Although Labster works just fine, there are a few quirks that you have to deal with in terms of the device itself. For example, the children have to get used to using the remote control.” As with all Labster’s customers, Dr. Katz was assigned a Customer Support Manager, Laura Wirzpa, to help her get started and make sure that things ran smoothly throughout the semester. “Laura really helped me through all that. I was constantly in communication with her through these issues, so that was great, having that support.”

As the semester progressed, Dr. Katz experienced that her students got more comfortable with the technology: “They’ve been more fluent with it, and it has worked as long as the device and remote were fully charged. So I can see them improving and asking for help a lot less. I see that they’re definitely getting more used to it and actually really looking forward to it!”

How one student went from a roadblock to reflective learning

Although the novel technology took some time getting used to, it also provided obvious benefits that Dr. Katz hadn’t seen before with other learning methods: “Last week when the students were doing the Pluripotent Stem Cell Culture lab, one of them came to me for help.

"This kind of learning, I just don’t think you can get out of a book. You can only learn it by doing it in a lab. And since I can’t give them that, this is the next best thing.”

At first, we thought that there might be a glitch in the system because she was trying to make a move in the simulation and nothing would happen. Then she looked at it again, and it turned out that she had simply made a mistake during her mammalian culture protocol. She had added stem cell media in something that already had old media in it, so the app wouldn’t let her go forward, and she had to start over. So from using that simulation, my student figured out by herself what the problem was. She understood the environment and learned that it’s important to get rid of the old stuff before you put the new stuff in, and she also learned that it’s important to change the pipette. And this kind of learning, I just don’t think you can get out of a book. You can only learn it by doing it in a lab. And since I can’t give them that, this is the next best thing.”

Positive student feedback

Initial anonymous surveys by the class indicated that the students felt Labster was a useful supplement and that it helped them understand the concepts better. Dr. Katz didn’t need the data to tell her the students were happy with it, however : “I know that the students like Labster because they told me that they like it, think it’s a fun way to learn, and even ask me when we are going to have another one. That it’s kind of like playing a video game. I also know they like it as a way for them to enhance their grade while also enhancing their level of understanding on a complex topic. They know it depends on the effort they put into it since I let them repeat the labs several times and take the best grade. In a real lab, if you make a mistake during the protocol, you often have to repeat it until you get it right, but this way we don’t use up expensive reagents in the process or spend precious time on lengthy incubation steps,” Dr. Katz explained. She let the students do the VR simulations in class with her, and then gave them the option to finish at home on their desktop, letting them repeat the simulations until they understood the concepts well. “Since students have to answer questions as they proceed through the lab, completing the assignment shows they’ve gained a solid understanding of the topic. And it’s not like a test per se, because the students can always finish it at home on their computers.”

Virtual labs: An important part of future education

Overall, Dr. Katz had a positive impression of Labster and a belief that virtual labs would play a significant role in science learning going forward: “I think simulations are going to be a really big part of the future. There’s really no other way to go about it. Unless we start allowing high school labs to do mammalian cell culture and equipping them with next-generation sequencing machines or the standard equipment that you would have in a university lab, we’re going to really fall behind on what we’re teaching. Yes, we could do some DNA extractions or PCR, but to get a full range of what you’d experience in a university setting would be prohibitively expensive. So you might invest in one type of equipment but you’ll never be able to recapitulate everything that’s happening in a real science lab. And it’s important to teach to current science. It’s moving very quickly now. There’s new equipment, there are new techniques, and I think it’s going to be very difficult for high schools to be catching up with that unless we somehow integrate some sort of simulation environment.

I also think that providing these experiences of actually being in a lab - being a scientist - I think that is the best way to learn science. One of the students in our Advanced Placement Biology class that worked at a lab over the summer recognized some of the techniques and equipment that appeared in the Labster simulations as similar to the ones in a real research institute.

Making mistakes, saving money, and speeding up time

Having used Labster for a while now, Dr. Katz had found several advantages of using virtual labs, and even though she would have gained a lot from having the labs available to her when she was completing her own education: “Having been in the lab myself for many years, I think it’s actually a really great way to learn some of the techniques. Because otherwise when you make a mistake in the real lab, you have probably wasted a lot of time and money, especially when you’re dealing with things like pluripotent stem cells or viral gene therapy.

The reagents are expensive, the enzymes are expensive, the stem cells themselves to culture are very expensive. So being able to make a mistake in that environment is honestly a really nice thing. I wish I had Labster when I was starting my PhD program so I could learn some of these techniques in this way. I like how in Labster they speed up the incubation time - I wish I had that during my PhD too! It would have been a good experience to try it in Labster first, and then do it in real life.

"Being able to make a mistake in that environment is honestly a really nice thing. I wish I had Labster when I was starting my PhD program so I could learn some of these techniques in this way."

So I’m hoping it’ll provide the same to the students. That’ll be really important, not just for high schools, but also for college programs or even in research as an educational tool, where you don’t want to have to have your young student go through the trauma of messing up an important construct or precious patient samples, and instead letting them have that practice first.So I think it’s going to be really big. I honestly think it’s going to be an important part of science education moving forward.”

This blog post was first published in 2019.

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