Illustration: Labster

Virtual laboratory making learning easy

Biological systems
Computer simulation used in biotechnology teaching increases learning and boosts student motivation for the subject.

By Signe Gry Braad

New research from DTU shows that computer simulation used in biotechnology teaching at Danish high schools and universities not only makes the teaching ‘stick’, it also changes student perception of the given area.

In collaboration with the Danish company Labster, DTU’s researchers have created a state-of-the-art, virtual laboratory where it is possible to perform experiments that are too expensive, time-consuming or for other reasons difficult to conduct in the real world.

The virtual laboratory is based on mathematical algorithms and underpinned by a design which lends the best of modern computer games in the form of a captivating plot, 3D animation and motivating different points systems.

For example, students will be investigating murders in true CSI style. Theoretical understanding is gradually embedded in them via pedagogically structured questions and virtual laboratory work involving, among other things, DNA analyses of blood from the crime scene.

“Our hypothesis was that if you combine elements from computer games with virtual experiments, we will not only witness increased learning, but also a change in student attitude,” says Hanne Jarmer, Associate Professor at DTU Systems Biology and one of the researchers behind the study.

And the hypothesis proved correct.
“We have compared test results among students who received traditional teaching, with students who used our virtual lab, and it was clear that the latter performed best. In addition and—of course—not surprisingly, our analysis shows that the students become more motivated to learn when using a computer game,” she concludes.

Fewer lab hours
A large proportion of Danish high school graduates have limited knowledge in natural sciences, among other things because it since 2013 has been possible to deselect science at B level.

This poses a problem for the Danish business community—including particularly the Danish biotech industry which is dependent on a constant flow of qualified labour.

One of the reasons for the lacking interest among young people could be the teaching methods applied in natural science subjects.
Laboratory time is often one of the elements first reduced, which is a problem as it is in the laboratory the students have the opportunity to experiment on their own.

In addition, high school equipment is usually obsolete, which is natural in an area where the technical development is constant and the latest equipment immensely expensive.

The research findings from DTU Systems Biology suggest that sophisticated computer simulation may be a significant part of the solution to the problem.

The analysis, which is also attracting global interest, has just been published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Biotechnology. The article can be read at from 8 July at 7 p.m. The title is 'Improving biotech education through gamified laboratory simulations.'

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