Research on Labster in the Classroom - The Labster Podcast, Episode 12
April Hey, everyone, I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast. I'm proud to say that at Labster we're guided by our mission to empower the next generation of scientists to change the world and contribute to solving global challenges. If you're an educator listening to this podcast, we know you also share that vision. So thank you.
April With me as always as my friend and fellow Labsterite SJ Boulton, an educational designer and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college and university.
April In today's episode, we have the pleasure of speaking with an educator whose dedication to student success and curiosity about the impact of teaching chemistry with Virtual labs led her to study how they impacted students learning outcomes. But before we dive into her research, let's meet her. Dr Melody Esfandiari received her bachelor's degree from San Jose State University and after receiving her PhD from the University of California, returned to SJSU as a chemistry lecturer, teaching alongside some of the same instructors she'd had as a student. She is the coordinator for introductory chemistry courses and an advisor for the Chemistry Club, which is a student affiliate chapter of the American Chemical Society. She's also started a partnership with local community colleges and established a summer internship program to create opportunities for community college students to participate in undergraduate research. In 2019, Melody was recognized with the Outstanding Lecturer of the Year award across all departments at San Jose State University. So let's meet her now. Welcome to the podcast, Melody.
April Great to have you here.
Melody I'm so excited to be here
SJ It was so interesting when April pinged up a certain person called Melody. We'd love to talk to her. What do you think? And I got to kind of like get to know you digitally before we met today. And one thing that really struck me is that you dedicated a lot of your time to help aspiring scientists, especially female scientists. And you have done so well and doing my university and outside of it.
SJ Looking back on your journey, becoming a scientist, what was it that inspired you most to pursue science as a woman? Are things that were particularly inspiring for you or particular events?
Melody Yeah. So I have an interesting journey. I, I wasn't interested in sciences. I wanted to be a fashion designer and I started my college career thinking I was going to be a fashion designer. And I took a chemistry class by accident.
SJ By accident?
Melody So back in the days and I'm going to date myself here, we we didn't sign up for classes online. You had to fill out paperwork and mail it in to sign up for classes and or you had to call in and then putting the course number and and sign up. And the chemistry course was 5000. And I ended the fashion, the graphic design class was 5001. So I messed up the number by one and I ended up in a chemistry class. Now keep in mind that I didn't go to class the first couple of weeks because it was a graphic design class, I'm not going to show up the first day. So by the time I actually showed up to the class, it was too late to drop.
SJ Oh, no. Well, I'm saying oh no. But OK, look at you now.
Melody So I was like taking a chemistry class. It's like, this is cool. I can do this. And then the the professor who was teaching the class, who is my boss now, she told me, she said, well then that was Chem 1A, she said, if you take Chem 1B, I will, I will give you a job teaching chemistry workshop to students. And I was like, OK, maybe. And then she was like this is how much I'm going to pay you. It was a really, really well paid job. I was like, oK, I'll do that. And I really just took it because you know that I don't know, the minimum wage was six dollars in San Jose and then the workshop was would pay me 35 dollars an hour. So I was like, yeah, I was like, wow, this is the most I'm ever going to make in my life, which is actually true I think.
Melody Sad thing, but yeah, so I started teaching the workshop and then that was it. I loved teaching chemistry. I and I was like, OK, so I think I'm going to change my major to chemistry and I'm going to teach chemistry for for a career. So if she probably saw something in me that I didn't know she was there, I owe her so much. But she helped me find what I'm passionate about, which is teaching chemistry. And what excites me about teaching chemistry is that you can take the most complex ideas and teach him in a really simple way. And I always joke around in my class that elements, they act like human beings.
SJ Yes, they do. They've got personalities.
Melody They totally do. And they have drama. That's what's called reaction. Yeah, like we have a double replacement reaction that they switch partners, you know, so much drama,
SJ So much drama with nitrogen. Nitrogen always wants to have another another bond in the mix. But no, no, no, we can't handle it.
Melody And everyone wants to look like a noble gas because they're considered sexy. And I like noble gases are like celebrities. Right. We want to look like celebrities. So everyone on the periodic table wants to look like the celebrities, which are the noble gases. So it's really fun to teach it that way and the students can connect to it. So that's how I ended up being a science major.
SJ I love this. I love the whole narrative of personality going along with the periodic table. I'm with you 100 percent. I've always thought they have personality. I'm really glad to have that validated functionality.
Melody And and so I started teaching. And then a little bit later and San Jose State is such an amazing place to be at and to teach. I have such a supportive faculty around me. But I, I noticed that outside my little bubble, how much women are struggling to be heard and how their work is not recognized as much as a man's work is. And that's when I started to to do my part. It's not it's not a big part as much as I can to show my students that this is this has been going on for a long time. We only have a few women who received Nobel Prize in sciences, and it shouldn't be like that. And that has been really fun to do.
SJ Sure. You well, I know that you were pivotal in helping create visibility for the play No Belles and really inspiring a lot of people to engage with that narrative of underrepresentation of women through the medium of scientific theater, which just sounds fantastic to me. And it's a great example of a of an activity that can uncover some of the the tensions within the scientific community in a way that's accessible to people of many different backgrounds. Do you think alongside, that other activities that you feel really do support women in completing their degrees in the scientific field and carrying on in that aspirational track? What do you think are some of the best ways we can do that?
Melody I think the best way is when they see someone like them doing it. And we always talk about in your classes is not just about teaching the topics, but it's got to be a mentorship in every class that we teach that you tell people, hey, you can do this. And I have student assistant and I usually try to have a student assistant from different backgrounds. So everyone in my class can say, oh, look at that, that person looks like me, they're doing this. I can do this, too. So that's that's very important. And I also want to point out one thing that we recently have done, and I think a lot of people can benefit from it. There is a there's a documentary called Picture a Scientist. Picture a Scientist. That's a documentary that I think everyone should watch. And that also highlights the struggles that women have had in the field.
SJ Mm hmm. I'm looking forward to a session that I'm having to look for. Picture a Scientist, ok.
Melody It's a short documentary, which is great. It's just just enough, you know, you don't get tired, but you get so much out of it.
SJ OK, I'm there, I'm committed. And I wonder some of those activities that you mentioned, it must have been so strange over the past year, kind of having to be addressed the way that you approach science education. I mean, you sound like somebody who uses a lot of storytelling, that uses a lot of personality within your education and trying to translate that to the online space must have been tricky. I was wondering, like, you know, what was it like for you suddenly having to switch to teaching digitally given the circumstances of the past year?
Melody Yeah, and I think everyone when the lockdown happened, were like, OK, we're going to be back in a in a week, maybe two weeks, we just thought it was going to be, oh, we're still not back yet. So the pandemic happened. We just didn't know what to do was and the lab classes were really affected the most because the element of hands on was gone. The lecture was affected. But you can still connect with someone online.
Melody And and it's funny that I bought a white board on Amazon and then I basically made a mini classroom in my kitchen as my kid is like walking around. So it was very entertaining for my students and I was still able to connect with my students because I made a little mini classroom for them. And the funny thing is, so we get evaluated at San Jose State every semester. And at the end everyone was like, this was great. Every time that she was telling a chemistry joke, we could just fast forward and not hear the chemistry joke. It was like, you're not passing my class!
Melody I thought I was funny the whole time. I thought I was funny, but they thought that was the best teacher that.
SJ At least they're listening, to know to fast forward, at least they're listening.
Melody That's a good point. But you like no, don't fast forward with chemistry jokes.
SJ I think you should give them a mock test just on the chemistry jokes.
Melody I should. I totally should. So, and in a way. I was able to connect with my students more because as soon as I said my smallest classroom is 250. It's a large classroom. I've had classes over 500. No one can really ask questions. Sorry not 500, probably over 300, no one can really ask any questions. But when you post your videos then people get a chance to actually ask questions and it's less intimidating to ask questions online than it is in person. So I think it worked out. I was happy with it. The lab though, that was much harder to be creative with.
SJ Sure. The the question, did you ever feel overwhelmed with the amount of questions you got, the amount of communication you're getting from your students?
Melody It was. It was different, but it was fun at the same time, because that meant, oh, they're watching it, they know what's going on.
SJ You've got that feedback.
Melody Yeah. And they were even commenting on the chemistry jokes. And, of course, they were coming up with their own chemistry jokes that they thought was funnier than mine.
SJ That's the thing, they weren't fast forwarding. And if they could make that comparative analysis, they were definitely not
Melody Just for the record, they were not funnier than mine.
SJ I have no doubt.
Melody So it was nice to see that conversation going because I don't even have time, class time. I have 50 minutes to teach and the next class has to start. So you don't have that interaction, where online I have all the time. So it was nice to see the students interacting with each other and then me chiming in and and answering all the questions. So that part I. I liked.
SJ So if I understand right, you taught your entire introductory chemistry course online during the pandemic and it sounds like you had to use a lot of different technologies in order to do that. So I was wondering, did did the virtual tools do what you expected them to do and help you stay connected or where things about them that you found were lacking? Was there anything you would change about the tools that you used?
Melody I don't think I will at the beginning, it was hard, I feel like the first batch of students who had to go through that, there were a lot of things we experimented on by the time we had the summer to figure it out and Fall was working out. And by the time the spring semester and came, we got it down. And a lot of the things that I've used, I will probably use some of them in the future because we've learned things that that work well. So why not learn from what we've learned from what we've done best and use them again?
SJ Can you give us any examples of things that you found worked really well?
Melody Labster has worked well.
Melody And one reason that Labster has been working well is like is that the fact that the Labster simulation, they can do things we can never do in a classroom. I'd give an example before that. There is a simulation. They go to a different planet to take a sample. They come back to Earth and analyze it. That might be a little hard to do in-person.
SJ it might be. And I, you
SJ When Jeff Bezos is going up. Maybe we can just, you know, catch a ride with him.
SJ We kind of use those storylines to try and kind of give some context. And yes, some of them are a little bit fantastical. We hope that they can sometimes engage a student just with like some a little bit of fun, a little bit of interest or like, oh, maybe this could happen in the future, even if they're thinking this isn't possible right now. And so we use on our as as devices for promoting engagement, which from the sounds of it you like to use to, which is super cool.
SJ So if you don't mind Melody, I'd love to ask you a little bit more about a study that you published in the spring semester, which was the Transfer of Knowledge from Virtual to Physical Labs. What was it that prompted you to to do that research and to look at the effectiveness and impact of teaching with virtual labs?
Melody I wanted to see if I should use it again.
SJ Fair dues.
Melody OK, so let's see what the student thought. A lot of times we don't ask the students what they think. Mm hmm. We think we know what's best for them before, you know, Mommie Dearest knows best. And and it matters to me what a student's thinks because they're the one that are learning. So I said, let's see what they thought. Did they think this was effective? Did they like it? Did they not like it? Because if the students don't like it, if they're struggling through it. Mm hmm. That means I've got to do something else. So that's what a survey was basically asking the students, what did you think? Would you want to do this again? Was this effective? And and and the answers that I got was not what I expected. And that's that's that's a good reason. So you have like here's my hypothesis. I think they're going to tell me they didn't like it. I don't know why. I thought that was like I like it, but whatever I like, they usually don't like.
SJ I'm really glad that you both liked something that's good.
Melody So we surveyed the students and over 400 students were surveyed. So it was a good sample size. And of course, you know, I offered extra credit to complete the survey. Bribery is not always a bad thing. So it was a good sample size and and it helped me decide what I want to do next. If this was the right tool for my class or not.
SJ So what kind of things where you getting back from the students? Are you able to share some of your findings?
Melody Yeah. So this area has had a couple of parts. The first part was and again, I wanted to see from a student's perspective, what did they think? Let's see what they thought and the first part focused on. Did you like the Labster, was it easy to use, was it easy to understand? Was it fun? Was it flexible? And that mattered to me. And that's really important because you don't want the students to be frustrated by technology. when I get frustrated with technology, which is very often I don't do it, I was like, I'm done. So I wanted to make sure that they're not frustrated with the technology is working. That was important to me.
And and and it was the result were great. More than 90 percent They thought that it was easy to navigate. It was easy to understand. It was very flexible. That was a huge point. And and I thought it was fun. So that was a consensus.
Melody And then the second part of the survey focused on how prepared do you feel you are if you had to go to an in-person lab tomorrow, basically after doing the Labster, are you confident then you can go to lab tomorrow and do the experiment? And surprisingly, most of them felt confident.
SJ They feel confident. Oh, I am so curious. Do do you intend to follow up on the study by actually testing how they do?
Melody And I can't do it now because. Yes, once, once, once we go back in person and there's going to be a combo of Labster and in person lab, I can actually test it up. So it was that there was there was no way to test it out and. Yeah. And some of. And a few people have asked me, they said, well, what's the point of this? If you couldn't test out, they actually could do the experiment, but I didn't see it that way. To me was: if my students think they can do it, that's half the battle. Absolutely, because if they feel confident, that's really a hard thing to to do that, to make sure the students feel confident before they go to lab.
SJ Oh, I'm with you so, so much. I remember myself when I reflect on students, especially in first year university, when they were coming in to do that very take their first steps in the left. Often the most difficult thing was overcoming the nerves, the anxiety of actually stepping into that lab room. The students would become very flustered with seemingly quite simple protocols simply because they were in a new environment, new service models and a new set of interactions that they had to negotiate. And all of that together was a very overwhelming experience or anything. I think we've talked about before, like on other podcasts, like anything we can do to kind of reduce that cognitive load and reduce the anxiety around going into the lab and performing, to me is is a big deal. So I'm really encouraged to hear that that confidence increase with your students took place. It's so encouraging.
Melody Yeah. And I was surprised. I'll be honest. I was surprised, but I, I was very happy about that because the class that I tried Labster on is an introductory chemistry class. So most of them have never taken chemistry before. Most of them actually not STEM majors. So if they feel confident that they can go and do this, that's a win to me.
Melody Now, I again, we don't know if they can go and do it, but we'll test it out once we have a chance. But the confidence is there, which matters. But it was also told the story is kind of funny that the first two Labster's simulations, we were on safety. Yes. And I had so many students email me, they say, oh, they failed. The simulation is the first one. Can we re-do it for a better grade? And my my answer was like, if you fail safety lab, there is no lab for you to go back to on a second day.
Melody Like I don't think they connected that.
SJ They can set Marie on fire as many times as they need to in order to learn the order of how essentially safely that is the joy of virtual simulations. That poor, poor avatar, she suffers a lot for our art but she's there to help the students learn.
Melody So that was kind of interesting to me that I had to have a conversation about that. Like, no, we can totally redo it. I was like, I know you could in a virtual lab, but not in person.
SJ Not in person. No, no, no. But that's why we're here. We fail so you don't have to. It's all good. And that's that's super interesting. I got you back and it sounds like you've got a really great structure or a good idea about how you want to integrate something like Labster with your in-person classes next year or in the in the coming up semester.
Melody And the pandemic forced us to do things and to try things we would have never tried. I would have never tried. I never thought about, for example, an online simulation so forced us to to try things. And it is sad not to use what we've learned.
SJ Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. So Melody has been super exciting to talk with you today.
Melody I really hope that that the universities are going to be open in the future to do things differently because they've done things the same way for a long time and has been comfortable but not in the forefront to try new things. You know, new things. So hopefully they're going to be open to to try new things and do things more more effectively.
April We really appreciate how Melody shared her personal story about discovering her passion for teaching chemistry. It was great to hear Melody’s research finding that her students’ experienced an increase in their chemistry confidence after learning with Labster. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this episode and we invite you to share them with us at Labster dot com slash feedback. Thanks for listening! If you liked this episode, we hope you’ll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. Until next time, keep teaching, keep learning and stay safe.