What happens when a combination of budgetary limitations, equipment cost, and a lack of access to supervisory staff mean you can no longer offer your students access to a great practical class? In the case of Dr. Louise Lutze-Mann, Senior Lecturer and Deputy Head of School at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales, the answer was simply to build her own – virtually – and with a little help from Smart Sparrow.

Dr. Lutze-Mann recognized that the lab was excellent for helping her students understand a troublesome concept, and that textbook learning alone was not sufficient. Not to mention that scientists learn by experimenting, so this is the best way for young scientists to be trained. She could not simply tell her students what would happen if certain substances were mixed in an oxygen electrode, and while this is meaningful in the wider context of mitochondrial function they needed to figure it out for themselves – they needed to learn by doing.

Dr. Lutze-Mann explored the option of creating a virtual space to give her students access to everything they’d have in a physical lab, including the equipment and materials needed to carry out an experiment, as well as the feedback and guidance to help them understand their results. What she found when she included her Virtual Oxygen Electrode Lab into her course material was that it was actually more effective in teaching her students than their time in the physical lab had ever been.

“The virtual lab was able to effectively teach more students at a fraction of the first year’s equivalent development cost,” says Dr. Lutze-Mann. “Rather than simply losing the resources to teach a valuable part of my course, Smart Sparrow actually gave me more flexibility, allowing my students to practice their lab work wherever and whenever they like.”

The 60-minute lesson starts out with revision of the background information, the students then undertake some “training” with the virtual and techniques they’ll be using, just like they’d experience in a ‘real’ lab. Once the software has determined that the student is comfortable with the concepts that underlie their practice, it will guide them through several virtual experiments as they measure the oxygen consumption by isolated mitochondria, and investigate how ATP is generated via the electron transport chain.

Teaching requires an active feedback loop between the teacher and the learner, and the VLab is connected to the analytics of the platform that records how each student is navigating the material, which means Dr. Lutze-Mann gains new insights every time her class runs through the lesson. “The management analytics enabled me to identify where individual students were struggling with concepts and experimental design,” she says, adding that they helped her to identify a number of the common misconceptions related to the content that required further explanation in the lesson for future students.

So far, the response from the students has been extremely positive, with Dr. Lutze-Mann reporting that, “We found students more engaged in the virtual lab than working in the real one.” What the lesson does is apply several mechanics that are proven to increase user engagement, leading to more effective learning. Students are constantly offered feedback as they make their way through the virtual lab lesson, are kept informed of how they are performing and are offered the option of improving their score by retaking the lesson. The lesson includes certain features like a progress bar and visually dynamic simulations, graphics and videos, which keep students motivated and engaged.

The Virtual Oxygen Electrode Lab might have been born due to a combination of capacity limitations, the high cost of replacing damaged equipment, and access to supervisory staff – but rather than being simply an “equal or lesser” replacement, it has proven to be a better tool, offering more engaging and effective ways for Dr. Lutze-Mann’s biochemistry students to learn their material.

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