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Learning Science: Virtual Labs Bring Real Results To UWC Students
(Published - 31 July 2020)

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the cancellation of hands-on laboratory practicals across the globe. But Learning Science UK online pre-labs have enabled University of the Western Cape students to continue their laboratory learning - virtually.

“It’s difficult to get a feel for the process of conducting research and ‘hands-on’ science without spending time in the laboratory or in the field,” said Professor Mike Davies-Coleman, Dean of UWC’s Faculty of Sciences.  “And since we can’t bring students into the labs because of the pandemic, we’ve been bringing the labs to them online, allowing them to immerse themselves in a user friendly interactive space, learn the relevant skills, and feed that back into their future experiments. We’re trying to keep them engaged, motivated and challenged - and provide a worthwhile experience in trying circumstances.” 

UWC’s partnership with Learning Science UK, began in 2019, before the pandemic reached our shores. Dr Juliet Stoltenkamp, Director of the Centre for Innovative Education & Communication Technologies (CIECT)  was tasked with getting the Learning Science programmes up and running on the University’s Learning Management System, iKamva, before the  partnership was officially launched with a visit by Learning Science CEO Bill Heslop in January 2020, who gave a presentation for its use to over 50 staff and members of the SRC.  

The interactive material focuses on laboratory techniques with the aim of better-preparing students entering undergraduate practical laboratories, reducing time in lab and reducing the waste of reagents and breakages of equipment and glassware inevitable during the learning process.  

During the lockdown the staff in the Faculty of Natural Sciences have found innovative ways of using these online interactive pre-pracs to expose students to laboratory techniques while waiting for the labs to reopen. 

“At UWC, the majority of our first year science class have never been near a laboratory, and many feel overwhelmed at the prospect of doing hands-on science in what is for them a very foreign environment,” said Prof Davies-Coleman. “The prelab online practical exercises are a great way to level the playing field before the practical session begins and to build pre-lab confidence.” 

Lockdown Learning Brings Real Results

The interest displayed by students in this interactive online exposure to laboratory techniques, through the numbers logging on for repeated online access, has been outstanding. A combined total of almost 34,000 learning activities were accessed by  UWC science students across the Learning Science Chemistry and Bioscience libraries from 1 February to 31 May 2020.  

Bill Heslop reported that this was the single largest engagement across their interactive programmes by any university in the world in the first three months of a university-Learning Science partnership.

Students’ level of engagement with these pre-pracs can be monitored online by the staff member running the practicals.  The result is that the students are better prepared as they enter the practicals and the wastage of reagents and breakage of glassware is much reduced. 

Successful implementation of these pre-pracs has also universally resulted in the students completing hands-on practicals in shorter times, which may prove one way of reducing overcrowding in our undergraduate laboratories by squeezing more pracs into the day.  

With this technology, Chemistry moves from the lecture room and laboratory to the computer where the viewed simulations offer supplementary ways of learning Chemistry while supporting the most economical use of laboratory resources and time,” said Professor Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi, Learning Science Champion at UWC’s Department of Chemistry. “The virtual labs have really helped supplement the ‘real’ laboratory practicals in Chemistry. Students who have done the simulations have been calmer, more confident, and even more independent - even though they’re first year students. And we’ve seen a lot fewer breakages as well!”

Learning Science has also developed Smart Worksheets for students to generate their own experimental data online and interpret these data with real time feedback, allowing continual learning at any pace.   

“We have strong evidence that smart worksheets provide a significant impact on student learning,” said Professor Dudley Shallcross, Extraordinary Professor of Chemistry at UWC. Dudley was a Director of Bristol ChemLabs hosted by the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol, the only Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in practical Chemistry in the UK, founded in 2005. Working with Learning Science, Bristol ChemLabS, pioneered the development of the first Dynamic Laboratory Manual, from which the Learning Science library was developed. 

Prof Shallcross has used the smart worksheets for three years at the University of Bristol, and the impact was startling: no failures on exams; students at the lower end (as judged by other assessments) moving up a grade; top students doing even better.

“Done well, the smart worksheets are the tutor on the student’s shoulder, helping them to work out what they know and - very importantly - what they don't know. So when they have the face-to-face interactions they are primed to ask the deeper level questions that will lead to a greater understanding.”

And it’s not just the students who benefit from this.

Academic staff and practical demonstrators can spend a lot of time going over the same problems, correcting the same mistakes, lab after lab. With students able to see for themselves where their problem areas are, and practice experimenting on their own, that can free up time for staff to focus more on what really matters,” said Heslop. 

Professor Gavin W Maneveldt from UWC’s Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology found that the pre-laboratory practicals immensely useful and supportive. 

The practical demonstrators were especially grateful that they could focus on more essential tasks related to the practicals themselves, rather than on the basic skills required to perform the required practical tasks.  Having more time to spend on the actual practicals showed a great improvement in the marks achieved by students as well.  The positive interactions with the students clearly demonstrated that they had engaged well with the online resources,” said Prof Maneveldt.

Dr Samuel Egieyeh, who teaches a final year module at UWC’s School of Pharmacy, also believes the Learning Science platform will be extremely useful for student learning. 

“The Learning Science platform, with its interactive animations, provides the students with a basic understanding of the central dogma of molecular biology and provides the link between the basic biotechnology experiments and the complex production process, formulation, and quality control of biologics,” he said. “I expect that my teaching will be a lot easier this year and the students will have a better understanding of practical concepts that they will require to apply to the new pharmaceutical space of biologics.”

Building The Future Of Education

Learning Science UK is used in nearly all 50 of the top universities in the United Kingdom, and has expanded to universities across Europe and in Australia, New Zealand and the United States.  UWC is the first university in Africa to use Learning Science UK online prepracs - but it won’t be the last: following Prof Davies-Coleman’s recommendations, the Faculty of Science at Stellenbosch University has also partnered with Learning Science.   

“All South African universities are all faced with similar problems: we need to impart practical scientific skills, critical thinking and the ability to evaluate data and respond accordingly in a resource constrained teaching environment,” said Prof Davies-Coleman. “So when we find something that works, we want to share it - to ensure the best outcome for as many of our students across the country as possible.”

The CIECT team advised and implemented a teaching and learning methodology, whereby a faculty champion was assisted to create a structured, interactive online laboratory environment, including a Pre-Lab section. The simulations were integrated into the discipline specific modules, enabling the lecturer to align it to specific topics, discussion forums and assessments.

“The approach of meeting with the Learning Science Champion on an individual basis, helping them explore what’s possible - that’s made a big difference,” said Dr Stoltenkamp. “The right people at the right time, working in the right way, have managed to make the seemingly impossible become the new normal and ensure long term sustainability.” 

“What the pandemic has done is to force universities to actually trial alternatives, rather than just debate them,” said Prof Davies-Coleman. “We have been forced to use the amazing  21st century teaching technologies that were only a distant dream a decade ago, and, although readily available, lay dormant in our hands before the pandemic changed everything.” 

 Even beyond the pandemic Learning Science will remain a valuable learning tool. It has shown to work effectively even when face-to-face interaction between students and lecturers in a laboratory environment is not possible. 

“For us this is a real game changer for practical undergraduate laboratory science at UWC, and it’s only going to keep changing from here,” said Prof Davies-Coleman. “I believe that we will never fully replace “hands on” science in a  laboratory via only accessing a virtual or augmented reality space. Neither will a computer replace the face to face interaction of young people with inspiring teachers in a laboratory science environment.  What the pandemic has shown us, however, is that there are now many new avenues to access inspiring teachers and develop confidence and excitement in laboratory science.  How we use technology is what matters.The pandemic has nudged us to reimagine the future of science teaching and learning with a new found confidence in the technology and innovation that has proven itself during lockdown.”