Biology instructors sometimes ask me why they should use virtual labs in their classes. The implication seems to be that virtual labs are inferior and not something they’d consider unless wet labs are unavailable (say, for example, during a pandemic). I’ve been asked often enough that I have three standard answers to that question.
First, all of us at SimBio fully support wet labs. I’m a biologist. I grew up catching fireflies and dissecting roadkill. Biologists in training should interact with living (or formerly living) organisms. No one would argue a fully virtual biology class is better than one where students touch, see, hear, and smell the biology they are learning about.
But not all biology experiments are amenable to a live student experience, particularly within the typical 2-3 hour lab period. It’s difficult to conduct evolution experiments in 3 hours, no matter how quickly the study organism reproduces. Even a semester is limiting. As an undergrad, I did a classic semester-long fruit fly lab, which was enough time to fit in 3 generations of flies in an attempt to discover the genetics behind the phenotype we were given. If something went wrong, or we wished to try another example, there was simply no time.
So, a second benefit of virtual labs is the ability to conduct experiments that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. The limiting factor could be one of timescale (following population dynamics over years in our Isle Royale simulation), involve expensive equipment (such as the neurobiology experiments in Action Potentials Explored), or the impossibility of physically seeing a phenomenon (the electron transport chain simulation in Cellular Respiration Explored).
As helpful as that is, simulating difficult experiments is not the main reason we started SimBio. Instead, it was an intuition that some important types of thinking scientists engage in are hard to elicit with a wet lab assignment. In my experience, wet labs help students “get a feel” for biology while learning some experimental techniques. By contrast, simulation-based labs like SimBio’s focus more on conceptual parts of biology. SimBio’s simulations handle the technical aspects, allowing students to focus on designing experiments, analyzing data, and/or applying biological theory to solve a problem. Thus, my third reason to use virtual labs (at least simulation based ones like SimBio’s) is that their conceptual focus makes them a great complement to wet labs. But I never had any data to back up that statement.
Now I do. A new paper from Sadhana Puntambekar and colleagues makes that exact comparison between equivalent physical and virtual labs. Their findings mirror what we at SimBio intuited. In their study, students conducting a physical lab spent more of their time and conversation with labmates on the technical aspects – how to set up equipment, take measurements, and make calculations. Those doing an equivalent simulation-based virtual lab spent more time talking about making predictions, understanding patterns, and interpreting results. The authors argue, as we have (but with data!), that the two approaches help students learn important, but different, aspects of science.
Because of that distinction, we generally avoid recreating a wet lab experience in our simulations – you won’t find students dragging images of test tubes around on screen. Instead, we model our simulations and other interactives on how biologists understand biological phenomenon, allowing students to experiment on a conceptual level. It is great to see data that supports this important role of virtual labs in biology education.
– Eli Meir, SimBio founder and author