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Labs of the future: using simulations to stimulate students’ curiosity

by | Aug 16, 2017 | News | 1 comment

Imagine if 300 students were able to complete a laboratory practical where they handle chemicals, take measurements, plot results, interact with high-end equipment - without ever entering a laboratory...

Enter Labster, a suite of fully interactive advanced lab simulations based on mathematical algorithms that support open-ended investigations. These are combined with gamification elements such as an immersive 3D universe, storytelling and a scoring system aimed at stimulating a students’ natural curiosity and highlighting the connection between science and the real world.

simulation software

Virtual reality laboratory

Virtual reality experiment

Labster – simulation software

 

Senior lecturer in the School of Life Sciences Cathy Gorrie attended a recent demonstration of this virtual lab software and says she can see the potential for offering students “the opportunity to see how to do protocols, practice what they will be doing in class or to see what happens if they do the wrong thing”.

What’s special about a simulation?

Simulations are “dynamic tools, representing reality, claiming fidelity, accuracy, and validity” (Sauve, 2007). Using simulations in the science classroom is not a new approach, they have been around for many decades if you consider the simulation manikins used in health sciences, screen-based virtual worlds or animations used to demonstrate biological processes. For example see this EDUCAUSE centre for applied research publication on uses, trends and implications of simulation technologies.

sims

Faculty of Health manikin

However, as our need for in-situ practice and work-place experience grows through the introduction of more internship or internship-like activities, the need for good quality simulation materials is being revisited. Combined with increased student numbers, the demand on high-end laboratory facilities such as the UTS Science Super-lab is growing.

superlab

The Faculty of Science Superlab

Strategic investment in technology

The faculty of Science at UTS is investigating the possibilities available through such laboratory simulations. They could be used for online pre-work in a learning.futures environment or for in-class work for large groups as shown in this TED talk. The faculty is embarking on a number of strategic projects to ensure our science graduates are ready for the future workplace. One of these is looking at the development and embedding of a technology enhanced strand in all of our courses.  Such simulation and VR or AR experiences align well with these goals.

All things being equal

Many have asked the question of whether a simulated experience can produce the same learning outcomes as its ‘real-life’ counterpart. A recent critical review of the literature on educational simulation and game-based learning found that not only were student perceptions of learning enhanced by such activities, there was also empirical evidence of improved cognitive learning outcomes including knowledge acquisition, conceptual application, content understanding and action-directed learning.

Associate Professor Sheila Donnelly from the School of Life Sciences says that simulations such as Labster have great potential for supporting the student laboratory experience particularly in the early years, allowing students the ability to learn from their mistakes in the lab. She says students can even design their own experiments thus supporting enquiry-based learning. She hopes they won’t ever fully replace the real laboratory experience though.

Interested in more conversations about the future of science? Sydney Science Festival is on from 8-20 August.

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