Fatima K. Rehman Headshot
Fatima K. Rehman | Lecturer

“Hands-on” Virtual Lab Experience


I coordinate and teach the Molecular and Cellular Biology lab which is one of the core courses required for all biology majors and often the first intensive laboratory the students after declaring their major. It is designed to give the students hands-on experience in a wide range of common research techniques and practices while promoting problem solving, data analysis and critical thinking skills. The sudden switch to remote instruction in Spring 2019 due to the COVID19 pandemic forced us to redesign the course entirely to fit the remote setting. Here we describe modifications of labs to incorporate alternative skills taught to replace the usual wet lab experiences while continuing to meet the same learning objectives. It will show how a carefully designed set of case-based investigative case studies can transform the virtual setting into an engaging “Hands on” lab experience. Many of the changes made will continue to be a part of the lab moving forward as they enhance student learning experience tremendously and also provide them with marketable skills.

Students in the biological sciences department aspire towards a variety of professions from health care and biomedical research to marine biology, animal sciences and even plant biology. However, regardless of what eventual track the students choose, to be successful they will need to have a practical knowledge of the field and not just a theoretical one. The courses in the biology department are designed with this in mind and often include required laboratory experiences to help students gain hands-on experience with basic techniques used in the biological research. These hands-on components enhance the understanding of the subject matter while helping students develop practical marketable skills.

I coordinate and teach the Molecular and Cellular Biology lab as one of my primary assignments. It is one of the core courses required for all biology majors and often the first intensive laboratory the students after declaring their major. It is designed to give the students hands-on experience in a wide range of common research techniques and practices. Students gain actual experience in handling and use of common lab equipment. A major goal of the lab is to promote and develop problem solving, data analysis and critical thinking skills. To accomplish these goals, students work in groups to design and perform their own experiments on a topic of interest and compare their findings to published literature. This creates excitement in students about research while helping them gain experience in lab techniques, data collection and interpretation through comparison with published research. Finally, students present their findings in a poster session open to all students and faculty of the department at the end of the semester.

When the current pandemic forced us to shift to remote instruction in spring 2020, I wondered if the students will be disinterested in the remote setting without the usual interactive activities. I also worried that students will not be able to gain practical knowledge of lab equipment and techniques which was a major objective of the lab. Finally, I thought the students were more prone to struggle with data analysis and interpretation without the usual guidance provided in the lab setting.

With these challenges in mind, I worked to move the lab into a remote setting while ensuring that the students continued to meet the learning objectives each week. I had always used my Canvas course site as an electronic laboratory manual and for assignments. Now, I added additional material to create a more comprehensive site complete with learning content and lab exercise demonstrations. I redesigned part of the curriculum to include online, open-source data analysis platforms and software to provide students with alternate marketable research skills when experience with actual lab equipment was not possible. To mimic the actual lab experience took advantage of free online simulations and virtual labs in combination with case studies for each week’s data collection and analysis practice. Finally, I maximized Zoom’s poll and breakout room functionalities to run group activities including the final poster session. With these changes my hope was to create an interactive and enjoyable laboratory experience for my students where they still met every one of the same learning objectives as a typical in person semester.

Digitalization of Lab modules:

Even before the pandemic, I used my Canvas course site regularly to provide weekly protocols, occasional reminders and to communicate any changes. I also used the site to administer quizzes and for students to digitally submit their assignments.  As we moved to a remote/ hybrid setting, I expanded and reorganized my site to become more comprehensive.

Canvas Course landing page
Canvas course modules
Canvas course modules extended
Example Canvas Studio Learning Content Videos
Example Canvas Studio Learning Content Videos
Canvas course module example layout
I designed all modules to be consistent and included an introductory page with all the content needed for the week in one place. This included the week’s objectives, learning content, introductory information PowerPoint and associated lecture, written protocol with associated video demonstration, and links to assignments due that week.
Canvas course modules learning content
Learning Content
Canvas course Assignment Page
Assignment Page
examples of student products from this assignment:
Examples of some student products from this assignment

Student engagement, progress and understanding of material was assessed through the analytics function in canvas. We could see how long students watched the video and also how they did on each question of the quiz. This helped us spot areas of the learning content that needed to be improved for better student learning experience. The assignments themselves had detailed written instructions along with step-by-step video tutorials for data analysis. This allowed the students to start working on the modules before the required zoom sessions and to come prepared with questions, so I was better able to assist them with their work. As in a typical semester where students cannot miss more than a couple of labs during a semester, I required attendance in the weekly Zoom sessions for our remote labs. This allowed better communication with the students and for collaboration opportunities during group project work.

Here is an example of how the week’s module would run using our Week 2 module for Cell Culture Basics which was a hyrbird lab with an in-person cell culture lab. Students were required to go through the module material before they attended that week’s lab meeting. We had some students enrolled in the hybrid lab where they still got to do the lab in person while others remained remote. Remote students were assigned a virtual lab simulation for cell culture from Labster while the in-person students passaged the cells and counted cells in class. Due to covid regulation we divided the 24 students into 2 batches of 12 and had one set come in for the first 2 hours while the second set came for the second half of the 4-hour lab slot. The time in lab was solely for practical work and data collection so it was imperative that students came prepared after reading and taking online quizzes on the lab demonstration videos.  

Week 2 module -hyrbird lab with an in-person cell culture lab
Canvas Course practice quiz
Passing cells demo video and practice quiz
Canvas Course
microscope images of data for cell count practice
After the lab, the students used online instructions to finish data analysis and interpretation. Virtual students were provided microscope images of data for cell count practice and performed the same analyses as the face-to-face students.
instructions for documentary
Finally, students watched a 1-hour documentary, “The Way of the Flesh” on the story of HeLa Cells and wrote a discussion post reflecting on one of the topics listed in the instructions. Topics included hot topics such as Ethics, Laboratory Safety, Discrimination and Patient privacy. To foster discussion each student was required to respond to at least 1 post with an alternate view on the subject. To ensure that different topics were addressed, students were required to browse the last five posts and choose a topic not mentioned in them for their own post. Reading and writing multiple posts on various aspects of the documentary allowed the students to synthesize the material better and helped in their understanding of the material. It further encouraged interaction between students which otherwise is minimal in the virtual setting.

Investigative Case Studies for Data Analysis:

The beginning three labs of the semester are focused on learning basic techniques and had in-person wet lab component to learn and practice the skill for the week. We then shifted our focus on learning additional methods while working on data analysis and critical thinking skills in two three-week module sets: one examining differentiation of cells and the second examining the effect of certain drug/ natural supplement treatment on cancer cells. In a face-2-face lab setting, for the second module set, the students would have worked in pairs to design an experiment using human cancer cell lines and one of the many treatments (traditional or natural) available as options in the lab. Each week they would process their cells using different techniques and learn to collect and process the data associated with it. They would then present their findings from one set of experiments in the form of a research article and the second in the form of the final poster presentation.

Module topics

In the Summer of 2020, I designed each of the experimental module with mock data for predetermined conditions for the students to collect and analyze. While it was sufficient to impart the associated learning objective, it was not without definite limitations. The biggest issue I saw was in diminished development of critical thinking due to the fixed design of the experiment. I also felt lack of interest and engagement in students as they did not have the same type of connection with the data set as they would have in the face-to-face setting. To help mitigate these effects I redesigned these labs as investigative case studies. I had the students divide into groups of five. I still provided them mock data for the four possible treatment conditions as comparison but also provided the groups with an “unknown” sample. The “unknown” sample data sets were numbered and came from a mixture of all four possible treatment. The students chose the data associated with their group’s chosen number at the beginning of the case study. Each week they made their observations in Zoom breakout rooms using the provided data images or raw data associated with each of the treatments including their group’s unknown sample. They then compared their analyzed results to the mock data and predicted the treatment of their chosen sample. This simple change increased student involvement and interest tremendously. Zoom breakout sessions during regularly scheduled class timings allowed the groups the opportunity to work together on data collection and analysis. I could go between groups to monitor their progress and to help them if needed. This fostered a feeling of community within the class and made it feel more collaborative in nature. More importantly, the students performed 20% better on average on quizzes and assignments related to these modules compared to the semester before.

Module topics
An example of how one of these modules were converted in the virtual setting.
Example images of Data to score
Example images of Data to score

Hands-on Experience in the Virtual Setting:

In the hybrid setting students were able to get some practice handling and using basic lab equipment such as pipettes, microscopes, and spectrophotometers. However, it was not sufficient to get mastery in their use. Most of our students work to pay for school and living expenses and try to find temporary/ part time positions in a field related to their major. I wanted to ensure that they continued to gain marketable skills through my lab so that they could have better job options available. I focused on incorporating tutorials and experience with two open-source data collection and analysis softwares that we use in research setting regularly. We used them extensively throughout the semester giving students meaningful experience with both, so they could be comfortable using these on their own as well. In addition to my own video tutorials, I also introduced them to tutorials and instructional seminars from the software publishers that could be used by students to gain even more skills over time. 

Poster Session in the Remote Setting:

Finally in the last month of the semester, the students working their pairs typically worked on comparing the data from their own group’s cancer treatment experiment against published research. They synthesized their findings into a poster that they presented in a department wide poster session for their final assignment. In the remote sessions we took advantage of the opportunity to expand the project so the student pairs could pick any disease or condition and examine the role of any natural supplement in alleviating or treating the symptoms from that disease. The ability to choose a topic of their choice gave the students a sense of ownership for their projects which in turn helped increase their engagement in the assignments.

To incorporate further development of critical thinking skills I asked students to find a “Non-scientific” source such as a TV ad, infomercial, website, social media and/or YouTube content related to their chosen supplement and how it may affect the disease and/or condition of their choice. They designed their original hypothesis based on this non-scientific source. They then examined the published scientific primary and secondary literature regarding their topic and created their poster to show their finding either accepting or refuting their original hypothesis. This made them see the utility of critical analysis in their everyday life where they are constantly bombarded with information and opinions on products and news and are expected to make important, sometimes life changing decisions based on these sources. Each week the groups met in breakout rooms in Zoom during regular lab timings and worked on the assignment for that week. This was especially important in the remote setting where some students were out of towns or were working extensively during the week making it difficult for partners to find common free time to work on the assignments together. In addition, they were able to get assistance from me as needed making their time more productive and less prone to confusion.

Finally, for the actual poster presentation, the students recorded a 5-minute video presentation of their poster and posted it in a discussion forum where others were then able to ask questions and comment on posters over a week’s time frame. In addition, in the final Zoom session, each group gave a 1-2 minute promotion of their poster at the beginning of class. These were supposed to be creative and could have included a skit, ad, poem or just a quick talk to encourage other groups to come look at their posters. The groups were then sent to breakout rooms where one partner shared the poster with attendees while the other visited other posters of choice. The poster most visited got 5 bonus points on their final poster presentation grade. Here is an example of how the breakout sessions looked during the “Speed Zooming Poster Session.” While students were able to choose their own breakout rooms to visit, I helped them as needed if they could not from their device.

Virtual Poster Session in progress
Virtual Poster Session in progress
Student products for the final Poster Project
Student products for the final Poster Project

Students really enjoyed the “Speed Zooming” through the posters and the interactions they had with their peers through them reminded them of SOARS and other poster sessions they had visited in the past. I asked the students to rate several aspects of the lab in an anonymous survey at the end. One of the questions asked the students to state changes they would like their peers to make for a more effective learning environment. I was interested to see that they wanted even more interaction and engagement from their peers. Here are some responses I received.

responses I received

I also asked the students to state what they liked best about the course. Many liked the fact that we interpreted real images and data using actual software and not just a lab simulation when in the remote environment. Most enjoyed the final project and appreciated the control over their choice of topics for the final posters. Finally, while a few found the abundance of sources overwhelming, majority were happy to see a variety of learning content within each module.

what students liked best about the course

Student Outcome:

Both Face-2-Face and Remote/ hybrid students performed similarly in the course with the remote setting having a slightly lower pass rate (96% F2F vs. 85% Remote). Examining each module separately, Face-2-Face students perform more consistently then remote which showed a lot more variance in their performance. However, remote students had a higher understanding of data analysis tasks and performed better on the critical thinking questions. 

Student Outcome

Final thoughts

Final thoughts

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