Maria Homann

July 3, 2018

My experience with Labster: Prof. Paul Kasili, Ph.D., Bunker Hill Community College

Prof. Paul Kasili teaches Genetics and Biotechnology at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, Massachusetts. He came across Labster in 2016, when he was looking for innovative ways to make his classes more engaging and enhance students' learning of scientific concepts.

Prof. Kasili piloted the labs in his class for the first time that same year, and found that the virtual labs not only supported and enhanced the teaching of complex scientific subjects and techniques, but also provided the students with an enjoyable, interactive and engaging way of learning science. The students were even willing to go above and beyond their course assigned virtual lab simulations and explore other topics of interest. This gave the students a dominant role and ownership in the learning process.

“It’s like you’re playing a game, but you’re learning. It’s contextualized. That makes it a lot of fun. So will I keep using Labster? Of course I’ll keep using Labster! I love it. And the students clearly love it too.”

Read on to learn how Prof. Kasili used Labster’s virtual lab simulations in his courses, and to find out how he used them to engage his students and enhance student learning, and thus give them a better understanding of core techniques and methods covered in his course.

Contextualized learning

One of the main things that Prof. Kasili wanted to give his students through his teaching was a better understanding of the connection between what he taught in his classes and the application of it in ‘the real world’.

Prof. Kasili found that the students’ understanding of the concepts improved when some kind of context was attached to the concepts. For example, when the students were able to see how the concepts applied in the real world, they found it easier to not only learn, but also to retain the information. This in addition generated interest and excitement in student engagement and learning.

“When I for example think of the meiosis lab, there’s a story behind it. You’re following a couple going through IVF. In the HPLC lab, you’re analysing medicine. So you’re working with real world applications and you can make real world connections with the course content, as opposed to just coming into a lab in school, where you follow a lab protocol, you do what you’re able to do, sometimes without giving it much thought, and you go home... you learn better when you’re able to attach meaning to a concept or theory. When learning is contextualized, you not only learn the material better, you also retain it better.”

Another thing that aided the students’ learning was the visualisation of concepts.

“Take the PCR lab, for example, where you’re able to look at molecules and molecular interactions through animations, you get a better understanding of molecular processes and the technique. So yes, I can read about a technique, I can answer questions about a technique, but do I really know why it’s important and how it happens? I think that’s where Labster comes in.”

"I can read about a technique, I can answer questions about a technique, but do I really know why it’s important and how it happens? I think that’s where Labster comes in.”

Making the students go above and beyond

The students in Prof. Kasili’s courses have since the beginning had full access to the Labster simulations, although only a selected set of lab simulations aligned to the Genetics and Biotechnology curriculum were assigned through the semester. But that didn’t mean that the students stuck to the assigned virtual labs.

“I typically assign a few labs that are aligned to the curriculum, for example Mitosis, Meiosis, and Gene Expression, and what I’ve found with time is that there are some students who go above and beyond and do labs that aren’t even assigned! It just shows that it really piques their curiosity and engages them in exploring learning science: What else is there within the menu of labs that are available at Labster?”

“What I’ve found with time is that there are some students who go above and beyond and do labs that aren’t even assigned!"

This was a clear indication that Prof. Kasili’s students had become engaged and invested in their learning since the virtual labs had been introduced, and that even though the labs were really well aligned to the courses he teaches, students still wanted to explore additional labs.

Prof. Kasili encouraged this mode of student-centered learning by giving his students a chance to bring up their grade if they didn’t do well in a virtual lab the first time round. If a student for example got an 85% and want to get a 95%, he would give the students the option to go back and redo the virtual lab.

On-demand labs

The option of repeating labs was not only useful for students who wanted to up their grades. It was also useful for the learning process as a whole. For example, the simulations allowed students to learn at their own pace. When they repeated the virtual labs, learning outcomes were reinforced.

“Labster has these checkpoints, so you can log out and come back and do it later, and at your own pace. This on-demand aspect was really attractive to me.”

In addition to repetition, the simulations were particularly useful for preparing students for lab work. Prof. Kasili’s Biotechnology course in particular was heavy on techniques and technology, and here the simulations contributed tremendously.

“We have HPLC machines, but when they do the HPLC lab simulation as a pre-lab, they know the components and how it’s operated. So they come in with a familiarity, and they’re not scared of using this big machine for the first time. This has worked really well in my biotechnology classes, because we have equipment such as Bioreactors, plate readers, HPLC, and PCR machines. The virtual labs really help the students become familiar with the material before they engage in the class, and I think that’s really, really useful.”

"The virtual labs really help the students become familiar with the material before they engage in the class, and I think that’s really, really useful."

With limited time and access to a real lab, Prof. Kasili found that the on-demand aspect was not only useful in preparing students for lab work, but also for reinforcing learning subsequent to lab work.

“I use the labs in two ways. For the HPLC lab, I give it to them as a pre-lab exercise. But they also do it again after the lab, because they’re now more familiar with the equipment. In that way the students get more exposure. For the gene expression lab, they also do it after they’ve covered the content in class, so that is reinforces the class content. But they also have the option to voluntarily go back and repeat the virtual labs.”

Using Labster at a community college

Bunker Hill Community College is a two year college. One of the college’s primary goals is to support student development and get the students to transfer to a 4 year college. Because the school has an open enrollment system, students don’t have to go through entrance exams to get admitted, and the students’ skills and abilities therefore vary much more than the typical 4 year college or university.

Prof. Kasili found that in this context specifically, having access to virtual labs provided a unique opportunity to prepare students for transferring.

“I think Labster offers a tremendous benefit for community colleges. If you want the students to be well prepared when the transfer to a 4 year school, I think this is one of the ways to engage them, to contextualize their learning and get them prepared for when they transfer.”

“I think Labster offers a tremendous benefit for community colleges."

Partly as a result of incorporating Labster’s virtual labs in his courses, Prof. Kasili’s Biotechnology Program at BHCC was awarded with an endorsement by the MassBioEd Biotechnology endorsement program. This means that the Biotechnology program meets the core biotech industry competencies developed by a working group of leaders from academia and the biotechnology industry.

What do the students think?

To get a better understanding of how useful Labster was to the students, Prof. Kasili asked his students to complete a survey at the end of the course. One of the important topics in the survey was about learning outcomes.

“I like the learning outcomes in Labster labs, and they’re very well integrated with the course learning outcomes. From the survey it was clear that the students were aware that the course learning outcomes, and how they were assessed are integrated into labster simulations. I think that’s a really big plus.”

From the surveys, it was also clear that the students liked that Labster provided a risk free environment for them to explore. They liked that it was inquiry based, and that it provided an active learning opportunity. Overall the attitude towards the labs was really positive.

“The students always say that they want to keep using Labster, which is really encouraging to me as a teacher.”

At the end of the survey, Prof. Kasili had an open ended question, where he would ask the students what they liked best about the simulations.

“Some of the things the students mention is that Labster provides new learning experiences next to the wet lab, that they’re fun, risk free, logical and organised. They also like the visuals and graphic videos that show things at the molecular level, and they say that it reinforces the concepts learned in class. They like that it’s interactive, that you learn techniques that give a better idea of what research is, and that there are new topics they could explore that weren’t in the class. They also really liked that were were able to go back and play the labs multiple times.”

"They like that it’s interactive, that you learn techniques that give a better idea of what research is, and that there are new topics they could explore that weren’t in the class. They also really liked that were were able to go back and play the labs multiple times.”

Prof. Kasili also asked his students which labs they thought were the most fun. Here they mentioned Gene Regulation, Protein Synthesis, Mendelian Inheritance, and Animal Genetics. Some of them mentioned labs that weren’t even assigned, such as the Pluripotent Stem Cell Culture lab, which again just showed that the students were exploring, playingand enjoyingthe labs on their own time.

“It’s like you’re playing a game, but you’re learning. It’s contextualized. That makes it a lot of fun. So will I keep using Labster? Of course I’ll keep using Labster! I love it. And the students clearly love it too.”

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