by George Rosa
A question always arises when consideration is given to developing fully online biology courses: what about the laboratory portion? Science laboratory is a unique and essential learning experience in any serious science course. Concepts covered in the lecture portion are applied in a hands-on approach involving seeing and manipulating real objects. Methods of scientific observation and experimentation used in the laboratory demonstrate the flexible and incremental processes involved in scientific investigation, and challenge students with problems that develop critical thinking and other cognitive skills, understanding of complex concepts and attitudes such as curiosity, risk-taking and collaboration.
For hybrid or blended courses having a laboratory section is not a problem. As much as 67% of a hybrid course can be conducted with face-to-face meetings. Laboratory can cover that time for most science courses. But what about developing a fully online course, one in which the percentage of the course devoted to face-to-face meetings is 0%.
Among solutions used by colleges to provide lab experience to students in online programs is to take a laboratory course through a weekend program or a summer residency. More recently home lab kits are being used to provide a “wet lab” experience at home. Another development is the virtual lab, some of which use Virtual Reality (VR). Labster.com is a site that supplies virtual lab simulations, including VR- compatible, for different biology, chemistry, physics and engineering courses. EdTech now has a set of VR goggles that can supply a class. Of course, both home lab kits, especially if the course requires microscopy, and virtual labs can be expensive.
But is there a way for students to still fulfill a wet lab course requirement remotely without incurring the large expense of home lab kits and equipment and computer simulations?
A possible direction is being shown by the rise of DIY (do-it-yourself) Science. Although different aspects of DIY Science have existed since the beginnings of science itself, and some fields, such as astronomy and paleontology have always had significant amateur contributions, a range of develop
ments over the years have led DIY Science to becoming a real global movement, including the Internet, the increased power of low-cost electronics including 3d printers, the open- access movement, free and open-source software, mobile devices with more sophisticated apps and the success of sites like YouTube, Wikihow and Pinterest as sources of how-to instruction. Global and domestic concerns such as climate change, biodiversity loss, the political threat to science and empirical research and cuts to science education has possibly added greater impetus to the movement. Among the important trends in the DIY Science movement:
Homemade lab experiments and equipment Homebrewed science experiments have been around for a long time and have been a traditional source for science fair projects for the K-12 grades. Lab exercises that can be set up at home appropriate for grades from pre-K through graduate school can be found in books and magazines such as Popular Science. But what have proliferated in recent years have been online open sources for college and post-graduate level experiments and laboratory equipment. Much of this is due to the availability of the 3d printer and the open-source Arduino microcontroller and software. Microscopes, centrifuges, ECG machines and spectrophotometers are among the sophisticated equipment that can be constructed with 3d printers. Mobile devices also can be used as scientific equipment. There are phone apps that identify plants, measure physiological data like heart rate and ECG, and instructions on how to use an iPhone as a microscope.
One could envision a course devoted to developing and building scientific lab equipment and then that equipment is loaned out to students in online science courses for their lab exercises.
Citizen Science Another trend that can be considered a part of the DIY Science phenomenon is the Citizen Science movement. Sometimes also called crowd-sourced science, volunteer monitoring, or participatory research, Citizen Science is a broad movement that has been defined variously as allowing non-professional scientists to participate in scientific research and make important contributions to scientific knowledge and policy, or more limited, to contribute data to scientific research projects. Many
programs and organizations have gotten involved in Citizen Science, with associated sites and mobile apps available for free from the Apple and Android app stores to collect and map data. For example, one popular Citizen Science project is iNaturalist, a community of over 750000 naturalists, scientists and nature enthusiasts who record and share observations of living things in nature, providing data that can be used to better understand biodiversity. Observations can be posted and mapped directly into the iNaturalist website or using the iNaturalist mobile app, which automatically can record image and location. iNaturalist also has the Seek app, which lets you use image recognition technology to identify plants and animals. There are many sites that serve as directories for those wanting to find a project to participate in, including Zooniverse.org, SciStarter, scientificamerican.com, and citizenscience.gov.
BioBlitz A BioBlitz is an activity where scientists, naturalists and volunteers perform an intensive biological survey of an area over a period of time, usually 24 hours, and an attempt is to catalogue every living species. Often they are held in urban parks or areas close to cities. BioBlitzes have several purposes including increasing awareness of local biodiversity, gathering taxonomic data on species or other groups, noting the occurrence of species or groups both common and rare for the location, and as a way for adults and children to meet and work with scientists in a fun activity. Activities that could be labeled BioBlitz have existed for many years, but now have coalesced into a movement, largely through activities sponsored by the National Park Service and National Geographic. Already seeing the value of the BioBlitz as an academic activity, CUNY’s Macauley Honors College sponsors an annual BioBlitz, partnering with a city park, and sophomore students use the data to complete class projects.
Providing a complete science education in a fully online course with experiential-experimental lab exercises has always been viewed as a challenge. However, now there is an amazing array of opportunities for students to experience hands-on activity, both virtually through computer and VR simulations, and through the DIY activities and technologies that are continually being developed. The upshot of these developments is that there is the potential for today’s students, both classroom and online, to experience scientific investigation as its actually practiced by working scientists in the disciplines.
Sources and Important Links
Scientific American – Citizen Science