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From the Real World to the Virtual World: Creating an Online Biological Laboratory Experience

From the Real World to the Virtual World: Creating an Online biological laboratory experience that allow students to continue to do science.

Lab courses are one of the most challenging spaces to recreate through online learning. Even though the hands-on experience and technical skills of manipulating instruments cannot be fully replicated, the Biological Research Laboratory Course (BRL, 01:119:117), led by Dr. Monica Torres and a team of Teaching Assistants (TAs) offered students alternative opportunities to engage in a research experience away from the on campus traditional lab space. The course included new strategies, such as breakout rooms, for teamwork and communication along with a combination of videos, interactive simulations and demonstrations that engaged students in activities as researchers working in a lab setting. Lab courses are one of the most challenging spaces to recreate through online learning. Even though the hands-on experience and technical skills of manipulating instruments cannot be fully replicated, the Biological Research Laboratory Course (BRL, 01:119:117), led by Dr. Monica Torres and a team of Teaching Assistants (TAs) offered students alternative opportunities to engage in a research experience away from the on campus traditional lab space. The course included new strategies, such as breakout rooms, for teamwork and communication along with a combination of videos, interactive simulations and demonstrations that engaged students in activities as researchers working in a lab setting. 


One of the research activities is the preparation of a capstone research proposal working in teams; this activity provides students the opportunity to explore further an area of freshwater ecology that interests them. During the research proposal preparation students engage in active learning by modeling the scientific process using real-world –authentic data through the use of environmental monitoring databases. The use of databases (such us the Raritan River Hydrological Observatory (https://tessera.rutgers.edu/rrho/ and the US Geological Service database Water Quality Watch https://waterwatch.usgs.gov/wqwatch/ provides access to real time water-quality data collected in surface waters throughout the United States  and allow students to work with real time long-term observational data from different locations to answer questions about environmental impact on water quality and biodiversity. At the end of the semester, students have the opportunity to practice their oral presentation skills by participating in a virtual poster session. The capstone project offers the opportunity to build data manipulation skills, quantitative reasoning skills, graphing and visualizing results to foster conceptual understanding of freshwater ecosystems and to develop analytical and problem solving skills needed for scientific research, upper courses and career preparation.  

Student feedback has been positive, with students remarking that despite the virtual mode of lab, "[Activities] are more fun than I expected. Team work is really interactive and the labster simulations are amazing for online learning as they are informative and visually appealing to work with.” And “Thank you for making the best virtual experience I could have ever imagined for a lab!”

Lab 117 picture newsletter

In the Biological Research Laboratory course, students work in teams in breakout rooms to discuss which PCR products would send for DNA sequencing as part of a DNA Barcoding project activity. They present their finding to the rest of the class in the Zoom main room.