April [00:00:00] Hey, everyone. I'm April and you're listening to The Labster Podcast.
Our host is Dr. SJ Boulton, an educational designer, and former university lecturer who now develops Labster's interactive virtual lab simulations for students in high school, college, and university.
This podcast is our space to share time with you and introduce you to a few of the innovative and inspiring science educators we meet as we, together, go about our mission of empowering the next generation to change the world.
Welcome to Episode 21. Our special guest today is Matthias Polte, a high school biology teacher at RHG Krefeld in Germany, and he is the very first public high school teacher in the country to teach with Labster.
Matthias is an advocate of pairing digital learning tools and active learning strategies to give students the practice and context they need to develop 21st-century skills like critical thinking and communication.
He practices a hands-on approach to teaching and combines in-person practical labs with Labster’s web-based simulations to help students understand subjects like advanced biology and nutrition at a deeper level.
But Matthias isn’t only interested in digital tools - he also cultivates a school garden and keeps an amazing school zoo with 35 species that students of all ages can explore.
Matthias Polte, thank you for joining us, and welcome to The Labster Podcast!
SJ Boulton [00:01:06] Thanks so much for joining us today, Matthias.
Matthias Polte [00:01:08] Thank you very much for the invitation.
SJ Boulton [00:01:10] Hey, no worries. I'm really excited to talk to you. I've heard so many excellent things about RHG and the way that they use Labster. So welcome to the podcast, Matthias Polte. Would you like to take a moment just to introduce yourself and your school and tell our listeners a little bit more about where you are and what it is that you teach?
Matthias Polte [00:01:33] Okay, yes. Hello, I'm a biology teacher in the public school in Krefeld, Germany. It's the west part of Germany, close to the border of the Netherlands, maybe some people want to know where exactly this. We have about 1000 students. The students graduate with their A-levels. The A-levels allow the students to attend the university when they finish school. So we work together with the students until they are about 19, 20 years old.
SJ Boulton [00:02:08] Right. Okay. We have the same we have A-levels in the UK too. You have to get them in order to go to a uni. Sure. I remember that time. Right. Awesome. So you teach biology?
Matthias Polte [00:02:22] Yes. I teach biology and sports education. But most of the time, biology has to do with half of my work. I work in school and half of the work I also teach teachers to be biology teachers. So I work at a kind of small university where the teachers after the university go to the teachers training for one and a half years. And there I teach and show them the real school world and what happens there. Yeah. And that's why I studied sports education, but I didn't use it a lot in school. So I have a lot to do with biology all the time. And most of my lessons are biology.
SJ Boulton [00:03:20] That's fantastic. And I'm also interested and I'm probably going to come back to this element that you have around teaching teachers. That's so interesting. I'd love to learn more about it. But first, just to kind of get a feel for your school and what you're doing with your students, I wondered if you could tell us a little bit more about them and what they're doing at the moment. You've mentioned about their A-levels and that they're going on to universities. Do you find that the students at this stage are quite driven? Do they know what they want to do or do you have to put a lot into them to get them engaged in what it is they're learning?
Matthias Polte [00:03:53] No, I think our students, like all kids in general, are always interested in nature and in science, what I'm teaching. And there is always a fascination about any topic we talk about in biology class. I think the last years with Corona, COVID, and with the climate change brings a lot of nature science thinking into the heads of my students and they are very interested.
Matthias Polte [00:04:26] On the other hand, they grow up in the digital world and it's normal for them and it's high motivation to get engaged in learning. I try to combine those interests, that they learn a lot about nature and science and learn with digital devices. And this is why I'm always trying to find new apps and learning methods in my classes. And it's for me very important to try to think outside the box and this is how I find Labster. And this allows me to get my students engaged in learning. So yeah, my students are very interested and now I have tools I can give them that they can learn with a high motivation.
SJ Boulton [00:05:21] That's really cool to hear, I love that. So you're finding that taking this kind of combined approach with the digital devices and digital technologies alongside with nature and science, is bringing those two together is really helping the students kind of get in and get engaged with those new concepts. That's so cool. And, one of the reasons that we were really excited to speak to you, I think you seem so committed to using digital technologies in the classroom, and it seems to it comes through very, very strongly with the way that you're doing. And I would love to take a moment just to congratulate you as a winner of our 2022 Labster STEM Excellence Award, so congratulations.
Matthias Polte [00:06:03] Thank you very much.
SJ Boulton [00:06:05] And I know the reason you were nominated especially was because of your commitment to using a number of innovative instruction methods. And, I know you've had such great success in fostering your students' lifelong success in science. It's so cool to hear and it's great that we were part of that journey for sure. So yeah, making us look good.
SJ Boulton [00:06:26] But also I wondered, one question around that because you mentioned you are teaching teachers to teach biology. Do you find that the teachers that you're teaching, do they already have a good feel for digital technologies or is it very new to them when you take it in your training?
Matthias Polte [00:06:47] It's new. It's new for them because you have to see, we in Germany, we just start the digitalization process in school. We started with the corona pandemic because in the years before, not a lot of people were thinking about it.
SJ Boulton [00:07:09] Oh, okay.
Matthias Polte [00:07:10] So when my teachers came to me, they, they learned in a normal school and they come to me and think that when I say 'think outside the box'. They think like they learn it when they were students and they had not so much to do with digitalization.
Matthias Polte [00:07:31] And then there are now a lot of scientists in Germany who think about it and try to create new learning settings. And that's what I do too. And yes, we show them a lot and we try out a lot together and then we discuss what helps us, what is good, what can we do. And everybody in Germany, I think, in the school system is now in the learning position. We don't know a lot. We figure out at the moment what is good for students and what is not. So the young teachers come to me with not a lot of knowledge about this special topic.
SJ Boulton [00:08:23] That's so interesting. What tools are you currently using? What you find in success with?
Matthias Polte [00:08:30] What I now use?
SJ Boulton [00:08:32] Yeah.
Matthias Polte [00:08:33] Yeah. We use what normal is in Germany we use learning management systems like Teams and Moodle, something like this. And all the schools get iPads in the next two years. So we teachers got iPads one year before, and we use the learning management systems. Like we give them exercises. They can look at what we did in the lesson when they were not at the lesson and they can answer questions and we can see what the answer is. And we got to learning management systems during the pandemic when the kids were at home so we could make lessons with them. What we now use in school when all are in school, we have iPads at my school and we have a Giga Cube for internet because most of the schools have no internet access for students. So we have only internet access for the teacher. Students have no internet, but that makes for me no sense.
SJ Boulton [00:09:50] No, not, at all.
Matthias Polte [00:09:52] Because they have to learn digital, not me only and just look at what I do. And when I have internet and they know that they can only sit there and look what I do. And that's not what I think about what good learning, high-quality learning is. And 13 years before, I said to the town administration, I need Internet for my students and till now I didn't get it. So I wait so long time for Internet access. And what we did in my school, we pay with private donations of parents these Giga Cubes. It's something like a mobile data box and we can put it with electricity when we get electricity. So it has mobile data and then all the students can go into the Internet and use it. And that's for me the most important thing that we have that now.
SJ Boulton [00:10:56] Yeah, we see this speaking here from my experience working within Labster and trying to understand different use cases across the world. One of the things we do see a lot in different parts of the U.S. and in Europe too is that infrastructure needs to catch up almost as a desire to use IT solutions like iPads or Chromebooks, different devices with students, but the infrastructure within the school sometimes can't handle it, be that because the Wi-Fi isn't set up right, or like you said, the students simply don't have access to that connectivity. That's wild.
Matthias Polte [00:11:33] Yeah, that's really wild.
SJ Boulton [00:11:34] I'm glad you now have access though!
Matthias Polte [00:11:36] Now we have access. Yes. But we don't know how long we have to wait that we get high-speed Internet into school. At this time, still we wait. The parents pay for it. But I think that's a big problem, what you say, the infrastructure. So when I said I want to use Labster the first time, six years before before the pandemic - I was the first teacher in Germany who used Labster in a public school - I came to my head teacher and said I want to use Labster, let us try. And everybody looked at me and said, "Yeah, you have no Internet for the students. We have no iPads, we have nothing." And that are the challenges we have to overcome, the challenges we have every day. And we try to find solutions. And that is at this moment when we use Labster. So the chemical industry, private industry helps with money that we can make the funding to finance all that stuff.
SJ Boulton [00:12:49] Wow. Okay.
Matthias Polte [00:12:50] It's always a challenge. So you have to look where you get it from.
SJ Boulton [00:12:54] Absolutely. For sure. And I mean for sustainability going forward as well, like being able to know that that will be paid for, then you don't have to kind of source from ad hoc spaces like parents, like getting grants from industry. Wow. Okay. So first step, make sure everybody's got Internet access. Step two, find the technologies you like.
Matthias Polte [00:13:22] But now we have the equipment, we use Labster, and that's great. And so we are now not limited in our learning process. And that's what I want to say, why I think Labster, why I am so engaged to use it and to talk to all the people and say to them, 'try it'.
Matthias Polte [00:13:40] Labster helps us to learn more in detail. I will give an example of when Labster makes it possible to explore science in more detail. For one example, we teach the theory of protein synthesis in Germany, the protein synthesis. Then we write the class test and we stop there. So the students learn only facts about the protein synthesis.
Matthias Polte [00:14:05] With Labster, now we don't stop. We take our knowledge to the next level and understand how to find a new drug to fight against anemia is one simulation Labster has developed. It allows us to understand how knowledge can be used in real life and how scientists work, which is, I think, the best for lifelong and intrinsically motivated learning. So yeah, I'm very happy that I have the infrastructure and that I can use Labster now. We will see how long, but at the moment everything is fine.
SJ Boulton [00:14:46] I'm so happy to hear that it's working out for you. And you're not the first to say that those kind of guided learning experiences, along with the contextual-based piece around, 'this is the science and this is it in a situation' can help with student engagement and certainly expanding that learning for sure.
Matthias Polte [00:15:06] And we have it three months now in my school, and there are so many parents and so many students who come to me and say, Matthias, it's perfect. That is the digital learning we need, that kind of digital learning. Because when you just put a paper of exercises into your learning management system, that's not digital learning at all. So it's easy to use it when someone is sitting at home and not in the school, but when you are in school, you don't need a very important learning management system. You need tools that help you to understand science more in detail. And that's what Labster does, in my opinion.
SJ Boulton [00:15:56] Yeah, I'm so happy to hear that and that you find in success with it. You did mention that sometimes you would set a task and you can see the scores. So that's all part of kind of Labster's dashboard, being able to see what score, for example, a student gets through answering quiz questions throughout the simulation. That makes me think that this is something that a student would do asynchronously or at home by themselves, as opposed to something that they might do in the school. And I know you've mentioned already about school infrastructure sometimes being a real challenge. So does that mean that you're using Labster or other the tools as well, in both in classroom setting and at home setting? How does it work for you?
Matthias Polte [00:16:43] Both.Yeah. Most of the time we use it for homework or hybrid learning settings. So when the teachers are not at school or I'm not at school because I have to go somewhere else. So we use the hybrid learning settings and the homework.
Matthias Polte [00:17:02] But in class, we learn first. The first step for me in class is that we learn about the basics of the topic. And then you can make the experiments with Labster at home, they apply the knowledge in an alternative, more realistic setting. But I still use Labster during class also because I want to observe the learning process of my students. I want to see how they use Labster and I can see where the problems are. And I have a lot of time to talk to them because for my students, the experimental stuff, the laboratory, that is a really totally new world they are coming in. And they have a lot of questions and that is good when I sit next to them and can answer the question, 'what is this kind of machine? What is the machine doing?' So I like both situations.
SJ Boulton [00:18:10] It sounds like the students get a slightly different learning experience or go through slightly different cognitive processes if they're doing it at home versus in the classroom. I love that you're able to take the time to explore curiosity with them, scientific curiosity with them. It's so cool.
Matthias Polte [00:18:28] Yeah, but when they are in the laboratory, we have the time to talk. That's very important. So when I try to explain everything in the front of the class, I cannot talk to my students one-to-one, face-to-face. So I can go through the classroom and help where I can, and talk about interesting questions about science, 'what is with the medication?' And when I saw my example of protein synthesis, then, you know, we see in Labster that after we develop the medication, you can use it also with cyclists to how to find out who's taking drugs before a race. And there are so many interesting aspects the students want to talk about. And so I have the time and can talk about it with them. That's what I like to do. I share my passion with the students and I have a lot of time to share my passion with them.
SJ Boulton [00:19:37] What a lovely way to build that intrinsic motivation, though you have mentioned it's one thing to do something and have it spark your imagination and spark your curiosity, but then to be able to explore the context, to make it personal to you and your interests, that's next level. That's awesome.
Matthias Polte [00:19:53] That's the next level, right.
SJ Boulton [00:19:55] Yeah, for sure. So, thinking about that. You mentioned that the experimental components are very new to your students. Do your students do wet lab work as well?
Matthias Polte [00:20:09] No. Do you mean in the real world or virtual? In real, we do a lot of experiments in the lower classes when they are small in the school garden. I have a school garden. I have my own school zoo with 35 species of animals living in our school and we make experiments.
SJ Boulton [00:20:32] Wow, I want to come to your school!
Matthias Polte [00:20:34] Yeah, very fine! But that is very important for me. I want to have both. I don't want that the students are all the time in the virtual reality. They also have to learn to experiment in real life. Because Labster shows us how experimental things, how it works how and scientists think 'what do we have to do?' And you cannot make something wrong. But when we want to teach, creative thinking, sometimes I give the students to create their own experiments.
SJ Boulton [00:21:21] Oh, okay.
Matthias Polte [00:21:21] That's what I like to do. We have a question and we'll discuss 'how we can answer this question with a very good experiment?'. And they have to create it. And that's something I cannot do in the virtual laboratory, but I use the virtual laboratory so that they have knowledge about how to think like a scientist. Otherwise, you cannot create a new situation of science. And, yeah, in the, in the lower classes, we make a lot of experiments outside. Biology, a lot of animals and plants experiments. And yeah, I like to use both and to make a combination of both.
SJ Boulton [00:22:10] Yeah, that's really cool. And bringing it so that you have an opportunity to experience the experiments or experience the procedures in the virtual lab so that you have a deeper understanding of what that experiment is or what an experiment could be without just reading a protocol.
Matthias Polte [00:22:30] Yeah, that is very important. When you create an experiment, you have to think like a scientist. And that's what students don't learn in school a lot because they learn a lot of facts every day. I don't want to say it's bad. It's important, but it's only one step. What we need, I think, in the 21st Century, are students who are critical thinkers, who are good in creativity, who are good in collaboration, in communication. And so we need more than to learn just facts.
Matthias Polte [00:23:14] And so we have they have to learn how the real world works, how everybody is doing, how the science tests work when we have it in Germany, I don't know, in the UK, maybe it was the same we had in Germany when corner pandemic COVID was the scientists. Scientists on the TV told us lots about COVID and mRNA. The people were very aggressive against the scientists because they don't want to hear what they say, I think. And I was very sad about this because I think they do a good job. They help us out of the pandemic with the mRNA technique. And what we do a lot of the people don't understand why they say things like they say. And that's what I think we need in our society, in the whole society, that the students have to learn it and to understand it, that it's very important.
SJ Boulton [00:24:20] I couldn't agree more that we need more critical thinkers, people that are able to take information at face value and assess its value and weigh it up against each other so that we make good decisions.
Matthias Polte [00:24:33] Yes, the alternative is very bad.
SJ Boulton [00:24:35] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Matthias Polte [00:24:40] Something for me, I'm a scientist, so I cannot understand it.
SJ Boulton [00:24:46] Yeah. I completely agree. More critical thinking, more ability to analyze and to defend your position with evidence as well. I'm right there and I love that. You know, Labster's been able to play a small part in helping you build that with your students by helping them build their critical skills.
Matthias Polte [00:25:06] Not only a small part, I think a very big part.
SJ Boulton [00:25:10] Why, thank you! So thinking a little bit about how you're teaching your students and how you're introducing Labster within your institution but also with the students that you get to train, that's so cool. I wondered: how has it been showing Labster to other teachers and administrators? Is it easy? Do they see value straight away or is it something that takes a little time for them to understand or see the utility? How do they tend to receive it?
Matthias Polte [00:25:48] Yeah, new methods bring change and some people don't like it.
SJ Boulton [00:25:55] Yeah, I can understand that.
Matthias Polte [00:25:56] There are sometimes teachers when they hear, 'oh, there is something new and you have to use it', they're very critical. But my colleagues at my school, they supported me a lot. And I told them from the experiments from Labster, and from the beginning on, we all together said, 'let us say it's an experiment'. We all jumped into this adventure and we make the experiment and we have the University of Bielefeld who are looking at how the students learn. They test them three times in a year and how the motivation changed of the students and after one year we get the data from the university. How Labster works in school. We make this experiment together and yeah, they say yes. And I was very happy. And we are six teachers in my school who use Labster. They told me now they wouldn't want to miss it any more.
SJ Boulton [00:27:05] Hurray!
Matthias Polte [00:27:08] They are now afraid. They are now still thinking after two months, 'What is next year? Do we have money?' And everybody is thinking how to get the money for the lessons that we can hold the Labster license for our students. And they want more licenses for more students for more courses in our schools. So everybody in my school is totally happy with this tool, parents, students and teachers.
SJ Boulton [00:27:42] And it's lovely that you have an evidence base now through that collaboration with the university that supports Labster having an impact being useful.
Matthias Polte [00:27:51] I think that's the way we have to go in the future. I want that Labster is coming to more schools in Germany because I have three small children and when they grow up I want that they have also have the possibility to learn in the digital setting because that's the future. We cannot stay in German schools till 20 years before, so we have to change something.
SJ Boulton [00:28:20] You make an excellent point.
Matthias Polte [00:28:22] Yeah. But what we have to try is now with the University of Bielefeld, they will write about it. You can read it in the newspaper a lot. So we work out loud what we do to find or to talk with a lot of teachers from other schools, because you will never have the point that the states will say, okay, we'll pay for Labster for all students. It will not happen. Germany is different. We will have the situation, I think, in the next years that every school will have iPads and Internet. Every student, I think in five years it will be done. And then the schools will get money for buying licenses from digital devices, but which license you buy depends. Every school can say for themselves what they want. So we don't the state doesn't say 'you have to use this,' so everybody every school decides we want this, we want this, we want this.
Matthias Polte [00:29:42] And so a lot of teachers have to know about Labster. A lot of teachers at this moment don't know about Labster in Germany, in my area, and when they know it, they see that we in our school have such positive experiences with this tool, they will maybe buy it for themselves to share.
SJ Boulton [00:33:33] So we are coming to the end of our time together. But before we close this podcast, I would love to hear some of your predictions for the future. So how do you think teaching and learning is going to change over the next five years, given how much change you've already experienced in the past three years?
Matthias Polte [00:33:52] Yeah, what I already said, I think I think the infrastructure and school will change in the next five years, and it will change the learning situation in Germany. Totally. And that is good because it's very important, I think. And what I think we have to look more for is not only to learn facts, what I said that the students learn creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration. And that's something I've heard that Labster is thinking about to make collaboration-led where the students can come together and make science. That would be an idea, I think. What would be very interesting, maybe international that you can do experiments with the student in the UK or something, that will be fine and I think that will change learning a lot because I always say to my teachers, you have with paper and pencil, you have one tool and the book, but when you have an iPad you can do so many. You have millions of tools you can use and you can create a learning setting. And that's what the teacher, all the teachers, have to learn in the next years. We are more and more not the people who know the facts. Yes, we are designers to create learning settings in these digital possibilities and to exploit these digital possibilities and tools. And that's what will change. And I think I'm very happy when I look into the future.
SJ Boulton [00:35:46] That's such an elegant way of thinking about this as teachers, almost as curators of learning environments, pulling together all these different elements and trying to help show students the way. How to analyze, how to critically think by bringing lots of different elements to that environment, that space where learning exists, whether it's physical and in a classroom or digital and within a virtual learning environment or within a management system. That's so elegant. I love that, Mattias, thank you very much. So that's one thing that we could do. Absolutely. I love this.
SJ Boulton [00:39:12] Well, it is. It's been my absolute pleasure to hear about all of the things that you've been doing with Labster and here and how you've been sharing the technology with new students. Sorry, with new teachers as well. Yeah. Well, hopefully, this will set everybody up for success in the future. It's so cool to have advocates like yourself who, you know, on just doing it themselves in the classroom with students, but also sharing your experience with others, especially those that are at the beginning of their teaching journeys. It's so valuable and I hope that it helps those folks then find the next technology or find the next technique and tools that will come across later in the future and just keep on developing that academic practice.
Matthias Polte [00:39:59] Yeah. Thank you very much for the invitation. It was nice to talk to you.
April [00:40:04] Thank you very much for sharing time with us in this episode, Matthias Polte. And thank you for listening. If you liked this episode, we hope you’ll share it with a fellow teacher and subscribe to The Labster Podcast. We invite you to send us your feedback at April at Labster dot com. Until next time, keep teaching and keep learning!