Walking into a university laboratory for the first time can be terrifying. Your practical instructions appear to be written in code. You smile at your laboratory partner prodding a thriving Staphylococcus aureus petri dish, and wish you had taken that gap year in South America.
In my first microbiology laboratory session, I managed to spill a vial of E.coli (luckily not 0157:H7) over my hands and set fire to my laboratory coat. In the following weeks glass shattered if I looked at it, experiments were ruined by my poor pipetting techniques and I was constantly losing data written on scraps of paper.
Wondrously, I did graduate and now recognise these were all valuable mistakes to make. However, could there be more efficient ways of learning good laboratory practise than setting fire to oneself?
Dr Nicky King says ‘yes!’
The Talk - Smart Worksheets and Simulations
On Wednesday 7th November, Dr King organised a talk on Streatham campus to showcase the recent results of her Education Incubator-funded project, which used Learning Science smart worksheets as a resource for Bioscience and Natural Science practicals. The project has also introduced Learning Science simulations for students to undertake prior to laboratory sessions.
Students may have little or no laboratory experience, turning simple experiments into laborious processes, taking hours.
The pre-laboratory simulations can replicate techniques that students need in the first few weeks of laboratory practicals, such as ‘How to handle a pipette’. The simulations give students the opportunity to make mistakes without wasting resources and damaging equipment, while increasing their confidence. Many students have been using these simulations before laboratory sessions and, encouragingly, re-visiting the simulations after the laboratory session to reinforce their learning.
Dr King has worked closely with Learning Science to develop fantastic interactive worksheets, where students can input their practical data and work through calculations online. The interactive worksheets inform the students of any mistakes they have made in real-time and, for the cost of a mark, show the solution.
An issue I found at university was the delay between performing the practical and the deadline for the calculations. Ten days after a laboratory session, I had certainly forgotten the key elements of the practical and the meaning of my data. However, these work sheets allow students to input their data in the laboratory or immediately afterwards, cementing students’ knowledge of the practical.
So what do students think?
- Responses have been very positive, in particular the worksheet’s detailed feedback. This allows students to manipulate their own data, learn from their mistakes and complete calculations instead of becoming stuck and giving up completely.
- Engagement has been high, with many students repeating both the simulations and worksheets. Laboratory sessions have been more efficient, with students successfully completing titrations, a difficult practical, on the first attempt.
- Lecturers have noted that students appear to be more confident in the lab, ask fewer questions about “Which button does what?” and focus more on the science being taught.
- Worksheets are automatically marked in real-time, dramatically reducing lecturer marking time. As the worksheets explain where the students have gone wrong, lecturers have noted a decrease in student queries, demonstrating the effectiveness of the resource.
- Simulations and worksheets are not limited to undergraduate students. These resources may be useful to members of staff, post-graduate research students and masters research students who want to refresh their knowledge or learn new techniques.
Learning Science are planning to develop new simulations in pharmacology, ecology and other sectors of biology. In fact, the applications are endless.
How do you think Learning Science could develop further simulations and worksheets? Leave your comments below!
For more information, please contact N.C.King@exeter.ac.uk
The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.