Utrecht University: Driving Student Ownership of Learning with Virtual Labs

Located in the Netherlands, Utrecht University is a world-renowned research university that is consistently striving to innovate education. Most recently, the University has undertaken a project to optimize lab practicals. The project was initiated by Bas Defize, former stem Cell researcher and current professor of biology. Bas and his colleagues at Utrecht University, including Molecular biology Ph.D. candidate Marjolein Haagsman, were both looking to better prepare students for practicals and in some instances give students access to a virtual lab when they do not have access to a physical lab. We spoke to both Bas and Marjolein about how the project between Utrecht and Labster happened and their own experiences with Labster.

Discovering virtual lab simulations

Three years ago, Bas wrote the grant proposal that would allow him to bring Labster to the University. Bas’ courses were located at the University College instead of the main campus, which made getting lab access tedious and time-consuming. The lack of proper lab access meant many of Bas’ students would end up in Master’s programs lacking the experience that their peers would have had. “I thought, well, with all these new IT developments maybe there’s a possibility to better prepare them for the practical. In this way when they get to the lab, they come better prepared and can use their limited lab time wisely.”

The search for a computer-based way to increase students’ skills led Bas to Labster, “When I wrote that project proposal I researched what kind of possibilities there were for virtual labs, and one of them was Labster. I tried it out and I liked it. When I showed it to other faculty members they liked it too so the rest is history and we went with Labster!”

“One of the reasons we sought out Labster was that students in our practicals are focused mainly on what they are doing, but we want to shift the focus towards why they are doing the steps as well.”

Marjolein was teaching courses in first-year molecular biology and biotechnology which focus more on theory instead of lab work. She was looking for a way to connect the lab practical with what students were learning in her course. She also wanted to shift students’ focus, “One of the reasons we sought out Labster was that students in our practicals are focused mainly on what they are doing, but we want to shift the focus towards why they are doing the steps as well.”

Failure Driven Learning in the Lab

An important aspect for Bas was teaching his students through failure. Allowing students to fail in the laboratory can trigger critical thinking and reflection they may not engage in when an experiment runs perfectly. In virtual simulations like Labster, there is the added benefit that failure does not require new equipment or additional time to recreate the experiment. This aspect of failure was so important to Bas that he flew to Copenhagen to meet with Labster.

“We visited Copenhagen to talk about co-creating a simulation with the Labster team. We wanted things in the simulation that were unique, and not similar to current simulations in the Labster catalog. Our idea was that students should be able to make choices that lead to mistakes and then get a result that doesn’t make sense. Then they will figure out what they did wrong and go back to change it. This is the element that is different to other Labster simulations, students get the chance to correct each individual experiment if there is an error. The end result of this is that they now have more ownership of the experimental protocol they’re performing.”

Preparing students with virtual labs

Incorporating virtual lab simulations can make practicals more effective for both the professor and students. Bas elaborates on how it has changed his practicals, “The Labster simulations saves us time, which allows us to go deeper into the practical lab work and to have better discussions with the students about what they do in the lab. Through the practical, we can check to see if they’re gaining more in-depth knowledge of what they’re doing.”

“Students recognized the type of results in their own experiment from the Labster simulation. And the students argue that the Labster simulation helped them to interpret their own data.”

In addition, Bas and his team have noticed that the simulations help students’ overall performance, “We still have to prove this but our goal behind using Labster was to give students ownership of the experiment protocol and learning. If students do the same experiment in both the Labster simulation and in the real-life practical, we want to show that the students who did the extra Labster simulation perform better than students that didn’t. We haven’t tried this out with larger groups of students yet but we have noticed in smaller groups of students that indeed, doing the Labster simulation before the practical is better for the students’ learning.” Marjolein added in, “students recognized the type of results in their own experiment from the Labster simulation. And the students argue that the Labster simulation helped them to interpret their own data.”

Immersive learning for sciences

Labster can offer students a different view on a familiar experiment. With short animations in the simulations, students can, for example, see inside a CRISPR machine. Bas describes how his students use the short animations in the simulations, “The simulations are also a great opportunity for students to learn the theory behind the experiments. The students especially like the graphics and animations that explain the different theories and concepts. The students in this group also do it again in their own time. They play the simulation before they do the practical and then in order to write their lab journal, they went back to it to watch some of the animations.”

Marjolein’s experience was similar, her students also relied on the animations to help them understand complex topics. “What I really like about Labster is the animations in the simulations. There are all kinds of animations. For example, there is a CRISPR animation where students can actually see what happens in the cell. My students really liked those and they actually want to see them again to prepare for the exam because I actually teach about these processes in class.”

Best practices for virtual labs

As Bas had the unique opportunity to work with us at Labster, we had to ask him if he had any advice for using Labster, “My advice now would be to listen to colleagues that have already used Labster. They can give feedback on simulations and which one you should try out. Another real piece of advice would be to take a lot of time and figure out which simulations fit your needs and then use those via your LMS.”

Marjolein also shared her thoughts on who Labster is the perfect fit for, “I think Labster would fit most perfectly for courses that already contain practicals. Labster simulations can then be used to show how such techniques can be applied in a different context. Besides, Labster simulations can be used as preparation for practicals and thereby increase the theoretical background of the experiment.”

Learn more about how virtual simulations can engage your students by trying out a Labster demo.

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