It is no news that students in STEM fields need practical experience with laboratory equipment before they move on to professional work. But for several reasons, many students may not arrive at university having completed the practical training they need, in order to feel confident in undertaking practical assessments. The reasons include large class sizes and less than enough equipment to satisfy student training needs.
Working in a lab can be a dangerous affair for students who are not trained, and who do not understand proper risk assessment. Labs are tightly controlled as they contain many potential chemical hazards and expensive equipment, which only puts extra pressure on the student to not make mistakes.
At the University of Westminster, virtual labs were introduced in the attempt to overcome these obstacles. By giving students access to virtual labs, the university provided students an opportunity to experiment freely and make mistakes, freeing up many resources and giving students the experience, and thereby also confidence, to work in a real lab.
Read on to learn how Dr. Caroline Smith, Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for Biological Sciences at University of Westminster, implemented Labster in her courses, and how she and her colleagues use the virtual labs today to enhance student learning and motivation.
Getting started with virtual labs
The University of Westminster first began using Labster’s virtual labs in 2015, with funding provided by the Quintin Hogg Trust. It started out as a pilot project, where a few professors tried out the simulations in different modules to test the alignment with the learning material.
The first simulation that was tested was HPLC. Dr. Smith had found this topic particularly suitable to teach with the simulation, as it provided a more exciting approach to the material for the students, and at the same time allowed them to complete the experiments with the HPLC machine faster:
“It’s quite difficult to explain how you alter the conditions of the HPLC machine to students and make it exciting, so therefore it was much better for the students to work through the simulation so that they could see how altering different factors influenced the analytical chemistry.”
"Because of the animations and the way the simulations have been put together, students could alter conditions and actually step a little beyond what they would have been able to do if they’d been in the laboratory."
Dr. Smith quickly experienced some key benefits of using the simulations as an addition to other teaching materials in her module:
“I think what I appreciated most when I first started using Labster was the fact that within 20-30 minutes, students could evaluate a technique that normally takes hours and is quite boring and dry. And because of the animations and the way the simulations have been put together, students could alter conditions and actually step a little beyond what they would have been able to do if they’d been in the laboratory.”
After successfully integrating HPLC into her analytical chemistry class, she and her colleagues started exploring the use of more Labster simulations.
Using virtual labs in several ways
Today, a number of professors at the University of Westminster use the simulations as an integrated part of their modules. They have found several ways for their students to use the simulations, including pre-lab and post-lab exercises and for exam preparation.
“Within my module we have recommended that the students work through the simulations in preparation for practical classes and also to consolidate information that’s given out in larger lectures.”
Getting the most out of time with virtual experiments
This method of using the simulations for multiple purposes resulted in positive feedback from the students, who said that it helped them understand the material better. A lot of the students had reported that they found the simulations useful and relevant to what they were learning in class.
After having worked with more of Labster’s simulations for some time, Dr. Smith began to see more possibilities with the simulations.
One example was how they enabled the students to work with machines and techniques not otherwise accessible to students. For example, the students were able to work with a Next Generation Sequencing machine in the Next Generation Sequencing simulation, which was otherwise unavailable to the students due to high costs. For this technique, and several others, Dr. Smith found that the virtual labs were able to bring to life the theoretical information that the students had been given in lectures.
Another thing that struck Dr. Smith as a key benefit was the time saved from doing the experiments in a virtual environment (as for example with the HPLC machine):
“Certainly for techniques where there’s quite a lot of standing around whilst experiments are incubating or you’re waiting for molecules to separate, Labster is quite beneficial because you can see it, set it up, the animation explains what’s happening, and then three hours have passed by in seconds and the student can move on to the next point in the experiment.”
Another topic for which the simulations were found to be particularly useful was laboratory health and safety. The virtual labs seemed to overcome many of the obstacles that typically arose when teaching such a topic. For example, the simulations made it possible to provide access to labs round the clock, to give students access to highly specialised equipment and reagents without impacting the budget, and to keep students safe despite them making mistakes, due to a controlled and safe virtual environment.
Positive feedback from the students
From the students’ perspective, the main benefit of using virtual labs was that they helped the students understand the material better: “In one of our surveys we probably got 80-90% saying that the simulation had either helped them learn a lot or helped them learn some. And there are only probably a handful of respondents who have disagreed with that statement. So overwhelmingly, they are positive that it has helped to gain understanding.”
“In one of our surveys we probably got 80-90% saying that the simulation had either helped them learn a lot or helped them learn some."
Dr. Smith attributed much of this positive feedback to the clear purpose of the simulations and their close tie with the theory. From the interviews that the university carried out with the students to gather their feedback, it was clear that the element of theory present in the simulations (in e.g. the multiple choice questions) made it clearer to them why they were doing those experiments. Dr. Smith explained how this helped more students understand the material better:
“In practical classes where students are working in groups, you might have some students hiding behind other students who might have prepared a little bit more, which means that those students might not really understand why they’re doing the experiment. But that doesn’t happen with the simulations because you have the multiple choice questions as you progress through the simulation, letting them better understand the fundamentals about why they’re carrying out the experiment. The students were quite positive about that element. And then there was an opportunity to go through more theory if they were a bit stuck, which they liked.”
Another feature that seemed to resonate particularly well with the students was the animations that brought biochemical reactions to life:
“Some of the students mentioned that they really liked the animations in cloning, genetic modification and DNA, where the simulations zoom in to the molecular level and show what is happening.”
Combined, the theory and animations helped the students gain an understanding of the material, which in turn helped increase their confidence. All in all, Dr. Smith found her students to be more interested and engaged in the topics and more prepared for the practicals after having introduced Labster’s virtual labs.
This blog post was originally published in 2019.
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