Practical science labs have a reputation for being fairly dry (there’s only so many times you can measure pH…) or just plain unappetising (dissecting frogs, anyone?). Imagine if instead, you could jump into the shoes of a forensic scientist and use DNA sequencing to solve a crime. Or maybe you’d prefer to crack a marine biology mystery by analysing water samples to investigate fish kills. These are just some of the exciting simulations provided by Labster, a company which develops fully interactive virtual simulation lab classes.
Taylors College Perth began using Labster lab simulation technology in its Molecular Biology courses this year and hasn’t looked back. The College provides extra support in the first year of tertiary studies to predominantly English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Completion of the Diploma of Science can lead directly to second-year entry into a Bachelor of Science at the University of Western Australia.
Harmony Clayton, a Diploma teacher of Human Biology and Molecular Biology, has found the simulations to be an excellent addition to the classroom environment. “It enhances the classroom experience in two ways”, says Clayton. “Students can access virtual equipment which would be incredibly expensive to provide in real life and they can perform experiments which would otherwise be potentially dangerous.”
Her students are currently working through simulations which range from basic lab skills (such as identifying hazards and storing chemicals) to more advanced techniques, including protein synthesis, bacterial isolation and DNA extraction.
“It isn’t practical to run lab sessions in every class”, says Clayton. “Although a simulation doesn’t replace practicals, in many cases the learning experience can be better than lectures.” The College additionally runs three practical lab sessions throughout the trimester. “Some of them match up very nicely with the Labster simulations, such as our prac on combining recombinant DNA,” says Clayton. Other simulations use state-of-the-art molecular biology techniques which the students would otherwise not be able to access in university teaching labs.
(Above) Labster during game-play
The Labster simulations also avoid health and safety issues which can arise in laboratory practicals, as well as the ethical considerations associated with genetic engineering experiments.
Labster has been largely well-received by the Taylors College students and many have found the simulations to be an excellent complement to their studies. “Of course it depends on the student”, says Clayton. “Some don’t really connect with it, but most students report that the simulations are fun and it helps them with their studies. Purely verbal learning can sometimes be challenging, particularly for ESL students, so the simulations can be a great help.”
Students run the software on a PC or their laptops and work through the simulations in class, with Clayton on hand to provide assistance. She finds that the gamification element of the simulations is great because “it can make learning less of a chore” and resonates particularly well with students who are gamers.
Clayton has found that the majority of the simulations are very user friendly and Labster provides excellent support. “They have been really good with proactively seeking feedback for the simulations.” The College will continue to use Labster simulations in future Molecular Biology courses and Clayton is excited about potentially using virtual reality headsets along with the simulations.
Clayton foresees more universities using simulations in the future. “As the costs of education go up and student enrolments increase, virtual options are becoming increasingly enticing and interesting to universities”.
– Larissa Fedunik
Read more about future learning trends here.
Author: Heather Catchpole
Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs