Science laboratories in schools have been a part of science teaching for the past two centuries, with pioneers such as John Dewey advocating this ‘learning by doing’ approach. These curious rooms, full of magical potions, oddly shaped vials and shiny implements have been a space for teaching practical scientific work, understanding scientific theory and applying methods of scientific inquiry.
Some of our best memories from high school lab class involved watching the bright white magnesium flame burning and gasping at an iodine snake foaming wildly. Teaching practical scientific processes and experiments in a lab encourages student collaboration and offers opportunities for students to work as real scientists in a real life practical setting. In fact, research has found that most students enjoy laboratory work, and it can help improve their interest and attitudes towards science.
Science education has long used labs to help students understand the process of scientific investigation and inquiry. However, there has been criticism about the ritual nature of science experiments. Students can follow a list of instructions to carry out the process with little regard to abstracting the practical to the wider purposes of the investigation. Rather than thinking about the larger impact of the experiment, steps are followed, memorised and ticked off as they are completed. This can lead to a narrow conception of science and take away from important learning outcomes related to critical thinking, problem solving and scientific inquiry skills. The introduction of technology and game-based learning to scientific teaching can help move away from these problems and bring a new lease of life into scientific inquiry in the classroom.
Labster is an online laboratory simulator that allows students to perform experiments that in real life may be too costly, dangerous or time consuming to do in a school setting. It has been used by teachers to supplement science classes or to replace real-life experiments usually conducted in a physical lab. What makes Labster stand out is its use of game-based learning techniques and real-life scenarios in a virtual laboratory to stimulate student engagement and enhance learning outcomes. The Labster lab itself would cost millions in real life, and students have access to unlimited consumables and reagents to play around with.
How the technology is structured is through scientific case studies such as High Performance Liquid Chromatography, Enzyme Kinetics and Cell Fermentation which can be purchased separately through the website. One of the most popular cases used in Labster, CSI, uses a scenario where students investigate a murder mystery using DNA investigation. The game helps students learn about DNA, and how important laboratory techniques such as PCR and Gel electrophoresis can be used to convict a criminal. Structured as a game, students must collect evidence from a crime scene, apply typical laboratory investigation techniques to DNA gathered and analyse DNA profiles to identify the murderer.
Another topical case included in the Labster portfolio is the Animal Genetics case, where students are tasked with analysing DM-meat that is suspected as being sold under an organic label. Students visit a farm and ask questions to the farmer about his cattle. They are given genetic theory about the cattle and must construct a pedigree analysis and a DNA test based on their observations. This scenario teaches students about Mendelian inheritance, genetic disease as well as molecular biology techniques that are commonly used in veterinary science.
Labster is an open ended learning environment, where students are allowed to make mistakes, and freely interact with reagents without the fear of contamination, injury or worse. All of the experiments are simulated through complex mathematical models which allow real experimentation by students, and scenario data can be downloaded for further investigation onto excel or similar programs. The software also includes assessment tools such as interactive quizzes that offer instant feedback and a leader board of top performing students.
It is easy to see the benefits of this technology for science teaching. The gaming element motivates and engages students to learn and the use of real-world scenarios such as hospitals, crime scenes and food analysis underlines why science is interesting and important to learn. More concrete data has arisen about the effectiveness of Labster in the classroom.
A recent study of Labster in groups of Danish students found that it was significantly more effective than traditional class-room teaching for teaching certain biotechnology topics. The study tested two groups of 60 students; one group played Labster for 45 minutes, and the others sat in on a traditional lecture for the same amount of time on the same topic. Results found that the group who played Labster scored higher on multiple choice questions than the lecture group. Interestingly, retention levels were tested a few weeks later, and no drop in these levels was found.
Mads Tvillinggaard Bonde, Founder and CEO of Labster describes the motivations behind creating Labster “Through both my own studies and teaching experience, I had observed that laboratory teaching was both very limited by budget, time and safety, along with being quite ineffective. When I found that available research on the subject supported my observations, I set out to create a laboratory simulator where students could perform expensive, hazardous experiments not possible in a real lab environment, with proven effectiveness in regards to student learning and motivation.”
It is easy to see the benefits of a technology like Labster; as Mads explains: The main benefits are the ability to enhance the students’ learning outcome and motivation, along with providing exciting and important lab exercises that are impossible to carry out in a real lab. Furthermore, Labster offers the possibility to offer students laboratory experience, where limited budgets make it impossible to offer physical laboratory exercises.
Labster can be used on many different devices including Windows, Mac, iPad and Android tablets and is relatively cost effective, with one case costing US $20 per student per semester. Alternative pricing options are available on their site.