After experimenting with online labs, biology professor Dr. Yavuz Cakir has found many benefits that may outweigh real-world work.
Assistant Professor of Biology,Voorhees College, Denmark, South Carolina
DVM, PhD in Comparative and Experimental Medicine, MS in Veterinary Physiology and Pharmacology
Is virtual reality ever better than the real thing? Biology professor Yavuz Cakir, DVM, PhD, says that the answer might be “yes”—at least when it comes to undergraduate lab work.
In his own research, Cakir specializes in complex investigations, much of it on how free radicals and reactive oxygen species cause genetic mutations that may initiate chronic conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and obesity. After years of this work, scientific procedure and lab protocol are practically part of his DNA. But for undergraduate students who are new to conducting experiments, hands-on work in a real-world lab can lead to mistakes that can distract from learning these procedures and protocols.
“Unlike in a real-life lab, students in virtual labs cannot make mistakes at critical junctures that lead them to incorrect results,” says Cakir. “That makes the virtual labs, in a way, even more efficient tools than in-person labs.”
Further, Cakir says that virtual labs enable students to use equipment that is sensitive and expensive, and to do studies on animals without actually involving living, breathing creatures. For example, this video on a “Cellular Respiration Simulation” from Labster provides a preview of a typical online lab experience, in which students use a virtual respirometer to test the oxygen level and exercise intensity of an animated white mouse.
Below, Cakir shares some resources for virtual science labs, along with the steps he takes to make them even more meaningful for online students at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Florida (as well as for his on-campus students at Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina).
“I love teaching online biology labs because virtual simulations are very effective in increasing student knowledge, experience, and understanding of basic lab procedures, as well as in helping students retain more fundamental skills necessary for a successful laboratory experience.”
-Yavuz Cakir, PhD
Course: BIOL 120L Foundations of Biology I Laboratory
Course description: To present a study of the general characteristics and basic concepts of living organisms, which includes: the hierarchical organization of life, basic chemistry of life (inorganic and organic), cell types and structures, membrane structure and function, thermodynamics/energy flow, metabolic processes (photosynthesis & cellular respiration), the cell cycle, meiosis, and an introduction to genetics. BIOL 120L is part of BIOL 120 Foundations of Biology I, a biological science course introducing the fundamentals of biology.
Cakir’s tips for setting up and breaking down virtual labs
Cakir does not build the lab experience on his own; instead, he has researched companies that collaborate with higher education institutions to create a traditional hands-on lab experience in an online or hybrid setting. While Cakir’s Foundations of Biology I Lab uses eScience Labs that focus on cell structures (e.g., mitochondria) and organelle functions, Labster and McGraw Hill Science Labs also have similar offerings.
Below, he shares how he preps students for the lab work and leads them through it:
Build confidence beforehand with short video tutorials
Before they tackle their first experiment, Cakir explains basic lab procedures via typical means—readings and slide shows—supplemented with short, relevant videos. “Viewing videos of specific laboratory techniques increases students’ knowledge, experience, and confidence with these techniques,” he says. “Short videos and animations are particularly helpful because they save time when conducting the lab.”
Serve as their lab assistant throughout the experiment
For each online lab, Cakir begins by walking students through his own set of step-by-step instructions on the different tasks they will need to do to complete the experiment. For the remainder of the experiment process, he makes himself available for content questions and technical issues any time—not just during office hours—via phone, email, Skype, and an online voice recording option. He says that only 20% of students contact him directly, and he is using virtual office hours in the hope of encouraging more of them to do so.
Require students to question each other (and offer some answers)
Cakir requires students to engage with each other on the lab’s discussion board every few days. Students must each write a detailed post and then give at least two constructive responses, with at least one question, to each of their classmates’ posts. Cakir has a rubric for grading their interactions, and while they do not make up a big part of their grade for the course, it is enough that the majority of students participate. He also uses this forum to answer common questions that he sees recurring in their notes, and to prompt class discussion of particularly interesting questions.
Have them sum things up in a traditional lab report
Virtual labs come with instructions and pre-lab questions (Cakir also adds his own customized questions). Students must complete the questions correctly before going on to each next step in the lab, and they complete a post-lab test afterward. To close out each lab assignment, students write a lab report that includes the goals and purpose of the experiment, what they were expecting for outcomes, what data they collected, what their analysis revealed, and whether they got the results they had expected.
Spend more time on feedback than on grading
The above lab report is where Cakir gets to share specific feedback to help students improve as scientists. There is plenty of time for this, he adds, because virtual labs are very easy to grade: The program will not allow students to proceed if they make a mistake. For example, if they are doing the lab on cellular respiration and they do not provide enough oxygen to the mouse being studied, the experiment will not work, and the program will make the students start over. (If they were to make an error early on in a real lab, they might go on to collect data that is not at all valuable for analysis, thereby ruining the remainder of the experience.)
For students, this “try, try again” approach can also build their confidence as scientists. Most of today’s college students grew up with video games, where you simply “respawn” after making a mistake, so they do not feel shame when a computer tells them to start over.
Interestingly, this more closely mirrors Cakir’s own real lab work, where the mark of a good experiment is not immediate perfection but creativity and perseverance.
While Cakir acknowledges that there are downsides to not seeing online students face-to-face, and that some concepts are more easily understood in in-person labs, he nonetheless believes the online option can be extremely effective. “I love teaching online biology labs,” he says, “because virtual simulations are very effective in increasing student knowledge, experience, and understanding of basic lab procedures and retaining more fundamental skills necessary for a successful laboratory experience.”