Just a Click Away, Virtual Laboratories

Caroline Smith, Assistant Head of School of Life Sciences, University of Westminster

Caroline Smith, Assistant Head of School of Life Sciences, University of Westminster

Bioscience courses are characterised by laboratory classes, which are an important part of the curriculum. We were initially drawn to virtual laboratory simulations to better prepare students for practical classes, to increase student engagement, and to build up student confidence. We rapidly realised that there were benefits of accessibility when using virtual laboratory simulations, both for students who enjoy studying round the clock and students with barriers to attending on-site. As the SARS-Covid2 pandemic has swept across the globe, the education sector, from pre-school to postgraduate studies, has been impacted. Use of laboratory simulations to teach these skills has gained credence as options to physical laboratory classes.

What is a laboratory simulation?

Laboratory simulations can vary from ones that take just a couple of minutes to complete to ones with an immersive scenario and problem solving that can take thirty to forty minutes to complete. Some simulations offer introductions to laboratory safety and protective equipment to prepare users for laboratories, whilst others enable the user to access equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds and would usually only be available in an industrial or research laboratory.

What types of simulation are available?

Most laboratory simulations require the user to answer questions in order to progress through the simulation. Scores from the simulations can contribute to the summative grade of the student, or they can just be used for formative assessment. Virtual laboratory simulations are available in many formats, the LearnSmart™ labs from McGraw Hill™ complement thee-textbooks and cover a range of laboratory techniques. LearnSmart™ algorithms can allow fast-tracking of questions if the user scores highly. There is a blend of photos and simulated laboratory equipment, and these can take around ten to fifteen minutes to complete as exercises.

“Laboratory simulations can vary from ones that take just a couple of minutes to complete to ones with an immersive scenario and problem solving that can take thirty to forty minutes to complete.”

Learning Science™ has developed a suite of pre-labs to prepare students for laboratory exercises; these can be accessed through a library of techniques or embedded into specific teaching sessions enabling students to break out and work through a simulation. The activities range from using a balance (weighing scales) to complex molecular techniques. These very short, typically 2-5 minute, activities involve simulated equipment and animations interspersed with questions to introduce the laboratory skills and data interpretation. The graphics of the Learning Science simulations are focused on equipment rather than scenery, and this enables a high degree of accessibility, and the simulations run on a wide range of mobile and tablet devices as well as desk-based computers. 

For a longer experience, the Labster™ simulations provide a real-world challenge and draw the user into a research or industry group where the problem is broken down. The user then enters the virtual laboratory and processes the samples at the virtual lab bench with specific pieces of equipment, and interprets the results. Throughout, the user is provided with instructions and questions to progress; with options to turn to a virtual textbook to delve deeper into the theory. Many of the simulations provided by Labster™ have been developed in collaboration with academic or industrial partners. 

Although the first generation Labster™ simulations run on PC devices, a more immersive experience is now available for those with larger budgets, utilising virtual reality headsets that enable the user to be in the laboratory and reach out to use the equipment.

What benefits have been noted from Laboratory simulations?

We have noted that integration of the laboratory simulation to our Virtual Learning Environment is essential and where this has not been seamless, it has been a demotivating factor for both staff and students. Since including virtual laboratory simulations, we have seen that they help to supplement theory from classes and prepare students for laboratory-based classes, having enabled the students to pre-experience the equipment they will be using and subsequently boosting confidence.

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