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