My Labster Experience: Pirjo Spuul, Tallinn University of Technology

Pirjo Spuul, Senior Researcher, has taught bachelor students at Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) in Estonia since 2016. She introduced Labster simulations as a pilot project to teach biosafety and subsequently organized a non-compulsory course consisting entirely of Labster simulations.

The idea of the new course was to give the students the chance to practice what they had learned in previous courses, to build up their existing knowledge, and to better prepare them for the practical component in their third year, where all students are required to work in a real lab.

So far, Dr. Spuul’s experience with using virtual labs in her course has been overwhelmingly positive: “Of course I would recommend Labster to others. There aren’t other universities using Labster in Estonia yet, but I really hope that it spreads because I think it’s very useful. It’s a great way to understand the concept of biological processes and different laboratory methods as well as to prepare for entering the lab, and for working in general.”

“Of course I would recommend Labster to others.”

Read on to learn why Dr. Spuul recommends Labster as a learning tool, and how she has been able to motivate her students, help them better understand key concepts, close knowledge gaps, and inspire them for their future careers.

Getting started with Labster

“I heard about Labster from my colleague who I did my Ph.D. with. He had been working with Labster simulations in Helsinki, and had co-created one of the Labster simulations. He told me about Labster, and I got very excited about it. I then got a licence to try out some of the simulations, along with my colleagues at TalTech. We realized what a great tool it was, and we decided to start with this approach where we gathered a group of students to pilot 16 simulations where the students had already covered the theory in previous courses. And it turned out to be a great success! Then we repeated the process the year after with a few more simulations, as the students wanted more.”
To Dr. Spuul, the simulations were a great way to prepare her students for what awaits them after her course: “My students haven’t entered the lab yet when they take my course. Usually they enter the lab after this course,” Dr. Spuul explained. “In Estonia, the bachelor degree takes three years and during the third year they have to work in a lab. Before they do that, students who select my course have just gone through these simulations, and they say that they feel much more confident to go and start using these techniques and doing the experiments.
Dr. Spuul explained that even after the course had ended, students wanted to continue using the simulations, indicating a strong interest from the students: “The course ended in April, but they had access to the simulations until August, and I actually had some students who told me that it was very useful to have access because they used it to study for other exams.”

Increased motivation among students

From the beginning, Dr. Spuul found the students to be highly motivated and engaged with the simulations: “The students have been really positive. They really enjoy the format, and I don’t have to pressure them to do the simulations.” She facilitated learning and feedback by having her students do some simulations at home, and some at the university with her: “By doing half of the simulations here at the university, we can discuss if they have any problems, or if they find it hard to understand something. In that way we have continuous feedback.”

Increased learning of key concepts

In addition to seeing positive attitudes towards the simulations, Dr. Spuul also saw how her students gained a better understanding of key concepts. This was due to the different components of the simulations: “My impression is that they learn the content really well with the simulations. They really love that each simulation has a story, letting them understand how they can use the techniques and apply them in the real world. They also really like the format. It’s a different kind of learning where there is a constant flow of theory, questions, etc. It’s like learning on the go. They like that there are quiz questions throughout the whole simulation.”

“They really love that each simulation has a story, letting them understand how they can use the techniques and apply them in the real world.”

“In general I think simulations are a great tool,” Dr. Spuul added. “They really complement the theory. I especially think the visuals help students. They enable the students to for example see the chemical reactions.” Here, Dr. Spuul also mentioned VR as a useful tool: “I haven’t tried Labster VR yet, but I would very much like to get started with that also. I think VR is another way to make the teaching more visual”
In addition to enhancing the existing learning experience, Dr. Spuul also explained how virtual labs made it possible to teach new things: “Labster offers the possibility to use techniques that we don’t have here at the university, or even in Estonia. Virtual labs make it possible for the students to try these things. It offers a great opportunity and a different level of learning.”

Closing student knowledge gaps

Another benefit of simulations Dr. Spuul mentioned was how they helped to level the students’ knowledge: ”Of course some students get it already when they read the textbook, but there are certainly also many who don’t. So as a teacher I see how it’s helping a lot of students,” Dr. Spuul explained. “Take PCR for instance. They learned about it in the book, but perhaps found it hard to understand, or they couldn’t visualize it. But in the simulation, they begin to understand how it works, and what the basic mechanisms behind the processes are.”

Inspiring students and preparing them for future careers

With help from the university’s evaluation system, Dr. Spuul was also able to conclude that the students found the format useful and even inspiring for their future careers: “I always ask for feedback at the end of the course, and many times they tell me that thanks to these simulations they understand how they can apply what they are learning, and that otherwise it’s just a lot of dry text and theory in a textbook. But in the simulations they can see the real user cases and applications. They start seeing what they can do with their education once they’ve graduated.”
Compared to students who didn’t select Dr. Spuul’s course, the enrolled students expressed more confidence and readiness to work in a physical lab: “They get a sense of what to expect and also what is expected of them in a lab. Take for example the Cell Culture simulation. My students say that after this simulation, they were ready to enter a cell culture room and they knew what to do. They knew how to use things, how to handle the hygiene, and all together feel more confident.”

“In the simulations they can see the real user cases and applications. They start seeing what they can do with their education once they’ve graduated.”

The future of virtual labs

When asked about the role of technology in education, Dr. Spuul explained how virtual labs will inevitably play a part in learning going forward: “I think that dry textbook era is over. Mainly because of the students. I think they’re growing up in this time where everything is very visual, and they use lots of video games, apps, etc., so I think the teaching has to develop in pace with this. The students expect more, and the teaching has to offer that. And I think Labster makes it possible to offer that.”
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