My Labster Experience: Marta Frisardi, University of New England

Marta Frisardi was one of the very first professors in the US to integrate Labster’s virtual labs into her science courses. A fierce supporter of the use of online simulations in science education, she spoke to us about the way in which Labster has complimented and enhanced her course in genetics at the University of New England.

The search for an online lab component

After being given the task of finding an online lab component appropriate to her course, Professor Frisardi began looking for software that would best explore molecular genetics. As her course consisted of post-baccalaureate students that had never studied molecular genetics before, it was crucial to the professor that the program she chose would be both easy to use and able to provide an enriching educational experience.

When asked about the process involved in finding the correct online lab component, Professor Frisardi told us that: “What I was looking for were ready-to-go virtual labs that would reflect some of the latest methodologies. This would allow students who had perhaps never taken a course with molecular components to understand, for example, how to put together a polymerase chain reaction or what it means to carry out next-generation sequencing and how researchers are using those advanced methods for studying big questions relating to human migration and evolution.”

As a result of her research surrounding online labs, Professor Frisardi came across Labster’s website and decided to get in touch. Today, Labster has offices all over the world, including in the US, but at the time, Professor Frisardi’s only option was to reach out to the Labster team in Denmark: “I contacted them via their website initially and dealt with the very lovely people in Copenhagen (which was a bit challenging due to the time difference). I had never had any dealings with a company outside of the United States, but Labster made it so easy.”

"Labster fit into those learning objectives so perfectly. It was really straightforward to select the labs that I wanted.”

After initiating a dialogue with Labster, Professor Frisardi wanted to ensure that the simulations aligned with the learning objectives of a general genetics course. After spending some time coordinating with the team in Copenhagen, she found that the simulations were a great fit to her syllabus: “I selected the Labster simulations because when I designed the course I began with the Genetics Society of America core competencies for an introductory genetics course, and Labster fit into those learning objectives so perfectly. It was really straightforward to select the labs that I wanted.”

Getting started with Labster

Introducing Labster onto the genetics syllabus gave students the opportunity to learn concepts and techniques, such as gene regulation, PCR, and advanced sequencing, in an engaging, virtual format. Aside from technical issues surrounding the speed of computers at the time, Professor Frisardi and her students had a positive experience with Labster from the beginning: “One thing that Labster has always had, that I really appreciate, is almost instantaneous customer service. This is really, really important - especially with students who have very compressed time frames for completing their course.”

“One thing that Labster has always had, that I really appreciate, is almost instantaneous customer service."

Despite making a few changes to her course over time, the simulations have remained a key part of Professor Frisardi’s curriculum to this day: ”I don’t see the laboratory components changing because they are an integral part of that big molecular piece that has to be incorporated in any type of genetic course, whether it’s a straight human genetics course, or a generalized genetics course such as ours.”

Increased engagement and learning among students

Professor Frisardi stated that she hadn’t received much feedback regarding Labster from her students over the years, but in her experience, this is a positive sign: “With online students, the less you hear, the better it’s working. When students don’t complain to me, it means that they are just cruising through the Labster portion. One of the best things about Labster is that students can do it when they want, they can do it as many times as they want, and they can keep working on it to make sure that they master the concepts,” the professor explained. This played a key role in ensuring the students meet their learning objectives.

As well as provide a positive addition to her student’s education, Labster has helped professor Frisardi to better manage her workload as a teacher and utilize her time more effectively; “I’m very grateful to Labster too, because I used to have the students carry out the Labster exercise, fill in my assessment document, and then take a quiz that was based on the Labster material. Now the designers at Labster have done that for me, providing great learning objectives with theory sections and assessments that precisely mirror the lab content; it’s made it much more straightforward.” Professor Frisardi explained, and expressed her excitement at the improvements and updates that Labster has seen over time: “This is the first time I have used the enhanced Labster content and I’m really looking forward to how it’s going to work for my students, because anything that tests them directly, at the same time as they are actually learning the material, is much, much better for retention.”

Making the impossible possible with virtual labs

A point that Professor Frisardi made particularly clear was the extent to which Labster’s software has enhanced the potential of her course. Most specifically, this has been through providing students with opportunities not available to them through the use of traditional lab kit materials. When asked about what is not possible in such labs, she pointed to molecular biology: ”It is challenging to do molecular biology experiments! The materials available online are quite expensive, making them difficult to incorporate in a cost-effective manner for my students. I have tried, for example, thinking about providing an inexpensive yeast transformation, but the materials still wind up being in the one to two hundred-dollar range for a single experiment - such costs greatly increase the overall cost of the course to our students. I feel that my students are better off carrying out such manipulations in a simulation where they can actually see results that they themselves generate.”

Labster’s ability to touch upon topics too expensive and complex to be dealt with in a normal lab has therefore provided Professor Frisardi and her students with a far more meaningful and expansive academic experience: “It is neither easy nor inexpensive to do molecular biology in a meaningful way using a lab kit. However with Labster, it is possible to carry out a simulation where students will actually consider a problem, follow a protocol, perform molecular manipulations and techniques themselves, produce data, and carry out their analysis - and I think that is much more meaningful. In any modern molecular lab, many of the procedures use store-bought materials, are automated/completed by a technician, or they are carried out with a computer guiding some sort of large machine. So, the students have the opportunity with Labster for a unique lab experience that allows them to encounter and carry out procedures and techniques they would actually conduct in a laboratory.”

"The students have the opportunity with Labster for a unique lab experience that allows them to encounter and carry out procedures and techniques they would actually conduct in a laboratory.”

To round off, Professor Frisardi spoke to us about why she will continue to use Labster in her course: “Labster is the only virtual set of labs that I know of that do a marvelous job with the molecular components of genetics. Labster does the best that I know of with this type of material, which is included in the Genetics Society of America core competencies that students should acquire from an introductory genetics course.”

An innovative educator, Professor Frisardi continues to utilize technology in order to enrich the learning experience of her students. Through the use of the virtual laboratories available at Labster, she has expanded what is possible on her course and found a way to include molecular genetics on her syllabus in a format that is manageable and effective.

This blog post was originally published in 2019.

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