Virtual experiments on viruses
Laboratory work is an essential part of the studies of any chemistry student. However, there are many things that cannot be done due to the limitations posed by existing facilities or equipment. These include experiments conducted on living viruses in biotechnology, as the risk of contamination for people and facilities would be too great. In a virtual laboratory, however, this and many other things are fully possible.
The LabLife3D learning environment situated in the Second Life virtual world (sites.google.com/site/lablife3d) has been created to support teaching at the Aalto University Department of Biotechnology and Chemical Technology. Professor Katrina Nordström talks about the development project:
"We were interested in creating an environment where learning could take place 24/7, in accordance with the student’s own schedule, and would not be limited to office hours in any way. From the viewpoint of learning, an essential aspect is the opportunity to make mistakes without causing real damage. In a virtual world, also the scale, repeatability and test period can be something entirely different than would be possible in reality."
"We could carry out an experiment using a sample of 10 thousand litres in 10 minutes. In the real world, this would take hours, if not days. Understandably, measuring equipment of this magnitude cannot be found in the student laboratory."
Learning from mistakes
The students receive a printout of their experiments that lists the equipment and methods used in the test situation as well as the reagents and their dosage. Based on this, it is possible for students to reflect on their activities, particularly if something should go wrong. In addition to a tool for learning, the test printouts are also an instrument for assessment. Nordström emphasises, however, that the virtual laboratory is just one teaching method that can be used to support learning experiences and, consequently, the quality of learning and that, naturally, will not be able to replace actual practical experience.
Versatile learning environment
Researcher Olli Natri M. Sc. (Tech.) and Sebastian Olkinuora, who is preparing his master’s thesis for the project, stress that the virtual laboratory can be utilised in a number of different ways. As examples of this, they mention cross-disciplinary cooperation and presenting the work done in the field of chemistry to stakeholders or to upper secondary school students planning their future studies.
"The virtual laboratory provides a way to open up and illustrate the world in which chemical engineers really work."
"In addition to its main content, it also offers a range of other activities. For example, it is possible to take a course in the language of microbiology in Swedish!"
A good team is the foundation for everything
Katrina Nordström points out that the LabLife3D project would not have been possible without a motivated team with a broad range of expertise and a strong commitment to their work.
"Among others, the project needed people to produce instructions and content, experts in pedagogy and learning as well as those skilled in the coding and visualisation of the virtual environment."
"This has been an amazing achievement and a pioneering work. When I saw the virtual laboratory on a computer screen for the first time, I was completely speechless. It was one of the finest moments in my whole career."
The diginatives are here!
Metaverstas Oy has been in charge of the technical implementation of the LabLife3D virtual laboratory. According to Pekka Qvist, a shareholder in the company, it is important for universities to keep up with the times.
'"he current 10- to 15-year-olds have grown into functioning in a digital environment. The question is, what kind of learning environment will they seek in their future studies."
"This is why teachers, too, need to become familiar with the (virtual) world in which young people already operate."
According to Qvist, the LabLife3D project is pioneering on many different levels.
"Corresponding virtual learning environments incorporating high-quality learning content and learning goals are few, even considering the situation in the world as a whole."
'"In my opinion, activities like this have a huge brand and advertising value that Aalto University should utilise even better than it has until now."
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