My Experience with Labster: Brian Harfe, University of Florida

The University of Florida initiated their collaboration with Labster in 2014 to create a set of virtual labs for their upper division course, Evolutionary Development Biology. This course is taken by biology, zoology, and other majors, including majors in their 100% online biology degree.

To support the course, three virtual labs were co-created between Professor Brian Harfe and Labster: Regeneration Biology, Embryology, and Invertebrate Model System.

Read on to learn how introducing these three virtual labs in the Evolutionary Development Biology course enabled Professor Harfe to teach experiments that would not have been possible in a residential setting for a number of reasons, including costs, safety issues and time constraints.

Introducing virtual labs at the University of Florida

When the University of Florida first started their collaboration with Labster, the goal was to create three virtual labs to be used for the online degree alone, providing the remote students who had no wet lab access with practical experience through the virtual labs.

Since the virtual labs quickly turned out to be a success, the University of Florida expanded their use of the labs to the residential version of the course. This made it possible for Professor Harfe’s students to carry out experiments that would otherwise have been impossible to complete in residential laboratories:

“Last year, because the labs worked so well online, we decided to also use them in the residential classes. The reason we wanted to use them for the residential classes was there was this one virtual lab that uses C. elegans that was impossible to do residentially. Before we introduced the virtual lab, the students would come to the wet lab, look through the microscope, see little worms moving around, some of them would glow, some of them would not, and that was the end of it. But the online version of the lab that was developed allows the students to do an entire genetic screen, clone genes, and pick out different animals. You can never do that in the undergraduate residential version, due to time and funding constraints. So that virtual lab has now replaced the residential lab, because it is a lot cooler than what you could do previously, and the students really like it a lot more.”

Advantages of virtual labs

Professor Harfe found a number of advantages to performing experiments in a virtual lab. These include the ability to alter time, the possibility of making mistakes without safety concerns, the lack of harm to animals, cost savings, and enhanced learning experiences.

Watch the short video below to see a preview of the simulations Professor Harfe used, and hear him explain the different advantages of virtual labs.

Altering time

Professor Harfe found that one of the advantages of using Labster was that the simulations allow students to control time: Students can speed up time to complete experiments and study results faster, slow down time to see the details of rapid chemical reactions, and go back in time, to repeat experiments multiple times:

“In the Regeneration Biology lab, it takes something like two months just to see the regeneration process, and by that time, the semester would almost be over. In the Embryology lab, the mouse embryo takes 21 days from fertilisation to being born. And you also need to go through the whole process of getting permission to use the animals. So time is the reason we do not do it… It is just not possible. Another example is the Embryology lab that allows students to follow the development of the embryo in great detail.

In a face-to-face lab, the analysis of the embryo’s development would require a student to check in on it every 2-3 days to be able to examine it at the same level of detail as in the virtual lab. This frequency of lab time is simply not possible for most classes. Of course, a lab manager could alternatively prepare a series of embryos beforehand for the students to examine, but still this would not allow the students to study their own individually windowed embryo. Even the Invertebrate Model System simulation, which is the shortest of the three simulations, would take over 18 days of lab work to complete in the real lab, whereas the virtual lab could be completed within 90 minutes.”

Aside from the possibility of speeding up time, Professor Harfe also found that the virtual labs offer the option of slowing down time, which is especially helpful for experiments that proceed rapidly in real-time:

“In chemistry, for example, you might add two things together and it changes color because of the chemical reaction. But it happens so fast that you can not see it. You can not see it because it is small, and you can not see it because of the speed. But you can do that online.”

Making risk-free mistakes

With virtual lab simulations, students can also go back in time and redo experiments if they make mistakes without suffering any real consequences. This is another advantage to the virtual labs that Professor Harfe experienced first hand in his course.

In the Embryology lab, for example, students might incorrectly place a needle in an egg during the windowing experiment, or forget to sterilize the outside of the egg prior to windowing. It is just as likely that students make these mistakes in the virtual lab as it is in a real lab. One key difference is that in the online version, students can speed up the time in the incubator, and quickly see the results to find out if they performed the experiment correctly. If they made an error, they can simply go back in time and repeat the experiment right away. That means that a lot of time is saved, and since the embryo is virtual, there is no loss or waste of resources.

Saving costs and enhancing learning

Labster’s virtual labs have advanced machines and lab equipment such as compound microscopes complete with digital cameras and dissecting microscopes. By using the virtual labs, the University of Florida was able to cut costs on purchasing this equipment, allowing them to save thousands of dollars.

The cost of performing experiments was also dramatically reduced with virtual labs. For example, in order for students to perform a next generation sequencing experiment in a face-to-face lab, sample preparation alone costs $900 per student. Running the next generation sequencing lane costs $3500 per student.

Professor Harfe explained that because the simulations provide the students with unlimited access to machinery otherwise unavailable for cost reasons, the students can explore these machines more in-depth and thereby acquire a deeper understanding of how the machines are used:

“Students need to understand how the machines and techniques work, because if something goes wrong, you need to be able to figure out how to fix it. I used a Labster simulation about sequencing in one of my labs. There is a lot of background information in the lab, so students can actually learn the technique, as opposed to just getting the data. In a regular lab, they would literally just send their sample away and get the sequence back as a file. They would never learn any of the scientific background about why it happened. And if they send their sequence away and it comes back as garbage, they have to figure out why. And you can not figure out why, if you do not understand what the technique was that was used to generate that data. I think online labs really can fill that gap.”

Professor Harfe described how there is growing number of cases nowadays in which techniques and processes are somehow automated or prepared for the students, leaving the students with little understanding of these techniques and processes:

“There are a number of techniques in molecular biology, genetics etc. that have been turned into kits. You order a kit, you mix some things together and you get your result. But our thesis committee is constantly asking the students: “Well, how did that work?” And they do not know how it works. They just say that they mixed stuff together, and that it was a kit. They do not have to understand the mixing of stuff together, they have to understand the theory behind, when you mix stuff together, and what that does. And there is no reason why you can not model all that online. Because it is even better than what they are doing in the classroom and in the real labs.”

What do the students think?

Confirming Professor Harfe’s impression that his students enjoy using the simulations, feedback from a survey suggested that the students found the labs both engaging and medically relevant. The case stories that are used in the simulations to demonstrate the material’s real-world relevance and application were particularly well received:

“A lot of these students want to go to med school or work in health related fields. They really like having the human component in there of a story that is healthcare related. The case stories are very useful for engaging the students that really want to go into those health related fields.”

To learn more about how Professor Harfe used Labster’s virtual labs in his Evolutionary Development Biology course, watch this video.

This blog post was originally published in 2019.

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