In 2014, we were asked to add a lab component to our biology course that taught students how to use microscopes.
Initially, we were skeptical of the usefulness of this addition. Our main concern was the lack of hands-on, practical experience, given that students were only handling the virtual microscope using a mouse and keyboard—would this experience really be useful?
However, instructors who taught in our lab informed us that students who used the simulations performed better when using real-life microscopes in subsequent classroom settings. This outcome was surprising to us, but after discussing it with those instructors and examining student performance, the result made sense.
Below, we identify why we think our virtual microscopes are so effective.
The learning objective of this course module was to familiarize students with compound and dissecting microscopes. Building accurate 3D models was paramount.
Our virtualized microscopes had similar functionality to their real-life counterparts. We also created a large quantity of real-life slide sample images at several magnification levels, adapted for use within a virtual world. Allowing students to adjust the focus added to the realistic, hands-on experience.
Caption: A selection of the real-life slides students study virtually
While remaining as accurate as possible, we limited the microscope’s functionality to maintain student focus. Students were not physically handling the microscope, so this also removed any concern that they could do damage to them or break any slides. Since students did not have to worry about accidentally harming equipment, they could focus more on learning about its functionality.
Caption: A student identifies the eyepiece of their microscope correctly
Increased engagement levels
Furthermore, the module introduces a narrative that puts what students have learned into practice and adds an extended layer of engagement: one of the virtual university’s labs has been sabotaged! It is up to students to apprehend the culprit for successful completion of the lab. They will have to use the appropriate microscopes to examine evidence from the crime scene and interview suspects. This narrative is an immersive educational experience that is memorable and fun.
Students must solve the mystery individually. Their engagement is improved when they perform the task without a lab partner. In addition, students do not simply watch their instructor or peers manipulate the equipment as they might in a classroom setting. Our lab provides a uniquely hands-on experience for every user.
However, a student may ask for help if they wish. Throughout the lab, instructors can see what students are doing in real time. This allows them to answer questions and guide a student through the activity if required. You can read our blog about why we value the presence of instructors in virtual environments, here.
Caption: A lab where students and instructors can gather to practice their skills
Replayability increases engagement, so we ensured there were several possible ways to solve the mystery, each leading to a different culprit. This encourages students to retake the lab to discover all possible outcomes. It also prevents students sharing their results with their peers ahead of time as they may have been assigned a different culprit.
Reduced learning anxiety
We have already discussed above one of the main benefits of virtualizing microscopes: that it is risk-free and removes the possibility of students damaging expensive equipment. However, this advantage does not only apply to this lab, it extends to simulations in a broader sense.
Working with equipment in virtual simulations solves two issues present in real labs. One is the problem of access: in virtual spaces, each individual is able to work with their own microscopes instead of sharing with others. Students have more time to familiarize themselves with the equipment.
The second advantage is reduced learning anxiety. Real lab settings are highly dependent on observational learning, wherein students would watch an instructor demonstrate a task for students to model. Failure to model the behavior shown can often lead to expensive consequences in the form of equipment damage. This then increases students’ learning anxiety.
Learning anxiety can occur when students are afraid to try a new task for fear of its difficulty or that they might appear inadequate to their peers. In our labs, learning anxiety is reduced because it is a safer environment for learning new skills and students are working independently. The resulting increase in confidence has been found to carry over into real-life labs for those students who completed our module beforehand.
Caption: A close-up of our virtual microscope
Examining the evidence
Simulation-based training is applied across many fields today, preparing learners for the real thing. Pilots learn the ropes in flight simulators. Healthcare workers practice with virtual patients. Firefighters train using immersive rescue simulations. And now, students practice with virtual microscopes to be better prepared for the classroom.
What we learned building this lab regarding familiarization, we now apply in our other learning environments. We do not underestimate the value of preparing students virtually. For example, in the experiments we created for our Environmental Science modules, students complete field work in simulations of endangered coral reefs and jungles. Within those spaces, we aim to teach students about following the scientific method, which helps set expectations for accurate data collection. Students also learn to engage with these methods and not become distracted by their surroundings.
Helping students understand the various functionalities of a microscope also influenced the order in which we present information in our virtual spaces. Where possible, we try to follow real lab procedures and safety protocols before moving to explore other possibilities in virtual space.
Experiencing practical, hands-on activities virtually has helped students hone their skills across many fields, so what other STEM fields might benefit from simulations?