Designing the Virtual Laboratory for a Real Experience

A key priority for LabXchange is to provide learners with greater access to science. Part of this undertaking means granting students access to laboratories with the necessary equipment. Hence, the idea for a virtual laboratory was born. A real lab experience with real lab techniques, at no cost.

Simulation Design

Look and feel of the second simulation: Running a gel.

LabXchange partnered with Hubble Studios, a digital learning agency, to design and build these virtual laboratories – or simulations. To start, the team looked at the Amgen Biotech Experience (ABE) curriculum. ABE offered well-tested content and strong network of teachers. The challenge was to take this curriculum’s experiments and turn them into a range of online scientific simulations. To create virtual experiences that could be used by both high school students and a wider audience.

While this particular set of simulations shows the technique to grow a protein (insulin, in this case), it also provides an opportunity to build out a library of scientific techniques. This includes micropipetting, gel electrophoresis, heat shock protocol, and plating techniques. From these simulations, more complex examples will be built for undergraduate students. This will include experiments in genome editing and stem cell function.

The Challenge of Creating a Virtual Laboratory

A crucial part of designing these simulations was to create an environment where students could actively participate in the scientific process. To progress by experimenting, failing, and learning.

At the same time, it was important to introduce learners to proper scientific procedure. This would include working with a protocol and recording their observations in a lab notebook. The challenge was how to bring this simulation to life. And to do this in a way that didn’t distract the students from recording their actions and observations. We also needed to find a balance. Between auto-populating the notebook with a record of the student’s actions while ensuring the student actively engages with the notebook. They would need to make their own notes.

In line with these considerations, we included the notebook as part of each simulation’s interface. Thus making it integral to how a student would navigate through the experiment. This digital lab notebook contains the context of the simulation, and the materials used. And also a student’s prediction of the expected results and the protocol. The notebook is also where the final results are recorded. As well as where we ask students to reflect on their experiment.

Guidance Notes for Students

The protocol itself provided its own set of challenges. There needed to be freedom for students to make mistakes while also maintaining the same level of guidance students would have in a real lab.

Any mistakes also needed to lead to realistic results. So students can see the impact of each action and the importance of accuracy in a lab. To make this happen, decision trees were built for all the potential outcomes of what a student could do, given the variables of a simulation. Here, the LabXchange’s team of experts had the opportunity to collaborate with core ABE teachers to map out the outcomes. As well as to include hints and warnings to enrich the learning along the way.

Bringing the Lab to Life

The look and feel of the prediction page of the lab notebook.

Of course, it wasn’t only important to consider how the simulation would work, but also how it was going to look. The simulation needed to be realistic for the sake of scientific accuracy, but also take into account the functional limitations around a simulated lab experience. The chosen style was based on the LabXchange branding, with a game-like interface to display gamification elements – especially useful for leveling the simulations to account for students’ different range of prior knowledge and experience. At the same time, we designed the virtual laboratory equipment with enough detail so that students can equate it with their apparatus in real labs. And easily transfer the skills they learn in the simulations.

The Prototype in Development

With the structure and design complete, the prototype for the first virtual laboratory simulation – an introduction to micropipetting – went into development.

The simulations needed to be built in a way that guaranteed the apparatus and their functions were reusable, and thus scalable. Hence, they were built directly in HTML5, which enabled coded algorithms to control how aspects of the simulation interacted, and how results were generated. It also allows the simulation to track students’ actions to give them accurate results and rich feedback. A joint effort by Hubble Studios’ team of learning designers, front-end developers and user-experience designers brought the “Using a micropipette” simulation to life in HTML5. This was done iteratively, with extensive testing both internally within the team and externally by students and teachers to ensure the end product was accurate, intuitive, engaging, and contained real learning value.

Working with an incredible group of passionate ABE teachers, Hubble Studios and LabXchange have created a scientifically accurate virtual lab experience for students from all backgrounds. We are excited to build the next set of simulations and expand the reach of biotechnology and science even further.

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