Case Study: Biology
How do you relieve the resource burden of running a very large course without spending more money?
Michele Yeargain, the Laboratory Course Coordinator in the University of Central Florida’s Biology Department, contacted us to find out if VLEs could help relieve some of the burden on the department of running a very large introductory undergraduate course. At the time, the department was using up to 75% of its available Teaching Assistant hours to deliver this one course, taken by approximately 4,000 students per year.
Michele had been looking for an alternative to face-to-face labs that would not jeopardize the quality of interaction that the students had with the teaching staff.
Project Title: Biology
Client: Michele Yeargain, Lab Course Coordinator, Department of Biology, University of Central Florida.
Objective: to relieve the resource burden of running a very large introductory undergraduate course in biology.
Summary: a series of modules including simulations of real world experiments, explorations of habitats, and imaginative conceptualizations. Students participate in wet laboratories, study and observe beetle populations in their natural environment, and walk around inside a giant cell.
Outcome: the course is now taught using a fraction of the resources previously required by the traditional classroom-based course, without any negative impact on the students’grades.
(The students) just love it, they embrace it, they spend a lot of time here, they want to come back and do the labs over and over again. They also will help each other in the environment, and that to me is a beautiful thing. I don’t feel we are limited by anything other than our imagination in a virtual environment…
We plan to continue using CNDG’s virtual environments for our labs. I feel that it is the ultimate customised and customisable lab because CNDG built exactly what I asked them to build. It sounds cliché but really, to me, if we can dream it, we can do it.
Videos of all our courses are available on our YouTube channel.
The course comprises the following modules:
3. Cellular Organelles/Structures
4. Osmosis and Diffusion
6. Cellular Respiration
9. Mendelian Genetics 1
10. Mendelian Genetics 2
11. DNA Synthesis, Transcription and Translation
Working with Michele Yeargain, the Laboratory Course Coordinator in the University of Central Florida’s Biology Department, CNDG designed a series of VLEs that allow students to familiarize themselves with the analytical machines and safety equipment they will use in real laboratories, practise core lab skills, and test their theoretical knowledge.
The modules include simulations of real life experiments, explorations of habitats, and imaginative conceptualizations. They are delivered both as supervised class sessions and as self-directed exercises that can be accessed at any time.
Initially, Michele proposed moving students from physical lab spaces to a virtual biodome, where the students would be able to practise key lab skills without using physical resources, and without the need for TA supervision, but during the development stage, this idea was taken much further. We designed a giant animal cell VLE that students could walk through as if they had been miniaturized, based on the Pearson textbooks and paper activities previously used in the physical classes. We also built virtual wet laboratories, a jungle VLE, and a desert crash site where students would meet a dying alien species and learn about Mendelian genetics.
Students explore measurement, including units of length and pH values. The module activity takes place at a virtual carnival. Students earn tickets for successfully completing educational mini games at carnival booths; they must earn a set amount of tickets to complete the activity.
Within a virtual laboratory, students study compound and dissecting microscopes by interacting with large-scale microscope models. Using what they have learned, they then solve a robbery by collecting, examining and identifying evidence collected at the crime scene.
3: Cellular Organelles/Structures
Students are tasked with locating and identifying ten different organelle/cellular structures inside a typical animal cell. The module takes the form of a treasure hunt. They are assisted by their HUD, which offers clues and hints as they explore the giant cell’s interior.
4: Osmosis and Diffusion
In the same virtual lab, students learn about passive transport cells, including osmosis, diffusion and tonicity. Their avatars sit at a lab bench and are guided through the experiments via a HUD (Heads-Up Display).
This module, which also takes place at a virtual lab bench, enables students to experiment with enzymes by measuring the rate of enzyme activity at various pH levels and temperatures.
6: Cellular Respiration
Cellular respiration is demonstrated inside a giant cell, which students walk around as if they have been miniaturised, guided by their HUD. They collect various organic compounds, then enter a mitochondrion. Students combine the compounds they collected in the matrix to synthesise ATP.
In this module, students return to the giant cell to explore the cell cycle and mitosis, and learn how these two processes function within an organism.
In this module, students return to the giant cell to explore the process of Meiosis and how it functions to produce gametes.
9-10: Mendelian Genetics 1 & 2
Students visit a desert canyon where an extra-terrestrial race is carrying out agricultural studies; these extra-terrestrials are succumbing to a genetic disease. Over two modules, students are introduced to monohybrid/dihybrid crosses, Punnett squares, sex-linked inheritance and pedigrees, and use what they learn find a cure for the extra-terrestrials’ sickness.
11: DNA Synthesis, Transcription and Translation
Returning to the giant cell, students discover how DNA is replicated, and explore the ways in which genetic information is used to make proteins, by interacting with virtual representations of cell components. These modules cover the processes of DNA synthesis, Transcription, and Translation.
As of 2018-19, approximately 4000 students are enrolled annually on this course, using a fraction of the resources of the traditional classroom-based course, without any negative impact on the students’ grades.
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