McMaster University Biochemistry Faculty Use Labster to Engage Students with Pre-Lab Exercises

McMaster University

McMaster University Biochemistry Faculty Use Labster to Engage Students with Pre-Lab Exercises

McMaster University

Active learning methods are effective at getting students to engage and learn deeply, but it can be a challenge to implement them in large introductory courses. One technique to increase active learning time for large enrollment courses is to assign virtual labs. Students enjoy using Labster’s experiential learning platform, and it creates a reliable way to help them visualize and understand new concepts and lab protocols. Read on to find out how Dr. Felicia Vulcu and the faculty of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences use Labster at McMaster University. 

Key Takeaways

  • Labster pre-labs help students visualize and practice biochemistry techniques prior to in-person labs
  • Biochemistry students enjoy practicing techniques in Labster’s realistic simulations 
  • Labster quiz questions are low-stakes assessments that provide instant feedback without increasing students’ anxiety or demanding instructors’ time 

Labster has a ton of simulations. It doesn’t matter what your content is, you can probably find a simulation.

Dr. Felicia Vulcu

Associate Professor

Visualizing Protocols and Connecting Concepts to Real Life  

One of the main reasons Dr. Felicia Vulcu chose Labster for her second-year course, an introduction to fundamental biochemistry lab techniques, was to overcome the difficulty of trying to teach protocols to students who have no experience with them.

“It’s hard for them to understand the readout of the protocol, the limitation of the technique, and the data analysis,” she said. “I needed a way to have students visualize the techniques prior to in-person implementation, and Labster was perfect for this.” 

“I wanted students to see how the concepts they are learning are applied to real-life situations. When I was an undergraduate student, I really appreciated it when instructors would teach us a relatively complex and abstract concept, and then immediately follow up with a real-life example of why this mattered. It helped me engage with the content so much more. I wanted to recreate that feeling for my students.” 

Simulations used  

  • Lab Safety 
  • PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) 
  • Bacterial Isolation
  • Molecular Cloning
  • NGS (Next Generation Sequencing) 
  • Gene Expression
  • Protein Synthesis
  • Protein Denaturation
  • Fermentation  

“Labster has a ton of simulations. It doesn't matter what your content is, you can probably find a simulation,” said Dr. Vulcu.  

Flipping the Lab with Labster

Dr. Vulcu combined Labster with team-based projects and practical labs to create a scaffolded learning process around the two main learning objectives for her course: developing technical lab skills, like molecular cloning proteins and cell-based assays, and strengthening communication skills, like oral and written communication. 

“We tried to engage students and flip the lab as much as possible to bridge these two skill sets together,” she said. “So for example, students would design a primer for PCR in their team think tank, then conduct the Labster PCR simulation as a pre-lab, and then go ahead and do a PCR in the real lab.” 

“I see a lot of excitement in the lab when we perform techniques that students previously saw in Labster. The students will point to specific pieces of equipment and say, ‘This is just like in the Labster lab’.”  

Playing Labster Together in Class

Dr. Vulcu occasionally puts a Labster simulation on the main screen at the front of the classroom and walks her students through it. “The reason I started doing this was to point out the things I wanted to emphasize for my course, so I would stop to expand on certain concepts. We had a lot of fun trying things out and answering the quiz questions. To be honest, I didn’t think this would work but the students loved it.”

“I would highly recommend it to all instructors,” she added. “I think the key is to turn off the audio and take students through the simulation yourself. Give everyone space to explore and ask questions.”  

How Biochemistry Students at McMaster University Responded to Labster

  • 82% said they felt engaged by Labster 
  • 97% said they found Labster easy to use
  • 93% said they enjoyed playing Labster along with their instructor during class
  • “It just felt like real life. Everything feels real. I love how we actually need to put on gloves, change pipette tips, etc.” 
  • “Labster helps you walk through the labs before you actually complete them.” 
  • “I enjoyed the use of the LabPad and the theory behind each question if you were unsure about a question.” 

Using Labster for Low-Stakes Assessment

Providing immediate, relevant feedback to students is great for learning, but all that grading can become too time-consuming for instructors. Labster makes it easier by asking a series of embedded quiz questions at frequent points throughout each simulation - requiring them to answer correctly before they can progress to the next step - and automatically scoring their responses. If students struggle, Labster’s pedagogical agent, Dr. One, gives students encouragement and points them toward the built-in Labster theory pages where they can reinforce their knowledge before correcting their answers. 

“They really enjoyed the assessment as well - they liked that they could have multiple attempts at it. The hints do decrease some of their marks, but not it's not an all or nothing. I wanted to take away the stress of marks as much as possible. I wanted students to have fun with the lab simulations and learn from them,” said Vulcu.  

Example of How Dr. Vulcu Matches Labster Virtual Labs to a Course Syllabus

Virtual Lab: Lab Safety → In-Person Lab: Pipetting basics & PCR

Virtual Lab: PCR → In-Person Lab: Restriction Enzyme digest, gel electrophoresis 

Virtual Lab: Bacterial Isolation → In-Person Lab: DNA ligation and bacterial transformation

Virtual Lab: Molecular Cloning → In-Person Lab: Alkaline Lysis Miniprep

Virtual Lab: NGS → In-Person Lab: RE mapping, agarose gel electrophoresis

Using Labster in a MOOC

Dr. Vulcu also uses Labster in a Coursera MOOC called DNA Decoded she developed in collaboration with her colleague, Dr. Caitlin Malarkey, Associate Chair of Undergraduate Education in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences at McMaster.

“When we put the Labster simulations into the MOOC, our hypothesis was that it would increase learner engagement,” said Dr. Mullarkey. “One of the problems with massive open online courses is that the completion rates are low. People start them and they don't finish them. It turns out that DNA Decoded has double the average completion rate of most MOOCs, so it's been very successful in that regard.” 

“I … loved their virtual labs, which was one of the essential parts of the course to really visualize the processes.” - Sona P., Coursera student, DNA Decoded  

a man sitting in front of a computer monitor
Share with your colleagues.
Download Case Study

Discover The Most Immersive Digital Learning Platform.

Request a demo to discover how Labster helps high schools and universities enhance student success.

Request Demo


This is some text inside of a div block.