Review by Christie Thomas, Common Sense Education | Updated April 2016


Impressive, advanced virtual biotech labs contain glitches

Subjects & skills
  • Science

  • Critical Thinking
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Pros: Biotech lab practice -- without an open flame or expensive equipment -- is a great boon for any advanced science classroom.

Cons: Technical glitches or kids' errors can cause users to get stuck, and students may find themselves unable to move on.

Bottom Line: Take it out for a spin to get a sense of its limitations and those glitches, and then embrace this amazing virtual tool as an introduction, a review, or (sometimes) even a wet-lab replacement.

Labster best suits high school students ready to meet its advanced expectations: Students taking AP biology or upper-level science electives (such as genetics or medical careers) will find a great resource in this tool. Pairing up students to complete labs (using one login) may be a good strategy to provide extra support and better utilize the tool's capabilities. You'll want to run through the whole lab first, noting places that might stump kids (due to technique or content) and coming up with solutions.

Try Labster as a precursor to your wet lab. The virtual lab lets kids attempt new techniques while making mistakes that won't affect time lines or budgets. Further, the site is thorough in its procedures (users dispose of every pipette tip!), so kids get practice with details that –- when transferred to a real lab –- increase successful results. Or, use Labster post-lab; the site's questions and animations can really spark connections between procedures and processes.

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Labster's website offers more than 20 biotechnology lab simulations. Aimed mainly at a collegiate audience, the content and language are advanced. Still, much of what's here is quite relevant, with some labs even marked for high school. A brief introduction places labs in a real-world context, and continued dialogue keeps this connection.

A LabPad guides students by providing all instructions and quiz questions from its Home tab. Supporting information is available wiki-style from the Theory tab; automatically saved images from prior lab scenes are in the Media tab; and completion along a checklist is under Mission. Labs can be returned to once they're started, although you can't necessarily return to the exact stopping point. Students are required to answer (many) questions related to experimental processes and content. They earn more points for choosing the right answer first and must select the correct one before proceeding.

Students can complete Labster’s “real” biotech tasks while also accessing valuable animations and explanations. Questions posed along the way help students think about their lab actions -- for example, "Why am I using primers?" Labster lets kids connect procedures with underlying cellular and molecular processes in a way wet labs often can't.

The LabPad is well-designed to provide task-related tips and background information. Still, technical glitches or incorrect techniques can trip up users. Task-specific hints, a more robust help menu, or the ability to jump to the next task could all improve the user experience. Teachers would appreciate the ability to move to desired lab sections for instructional purposes. Printable quizzes and lab procedures could assist the transfer of this amazing learning from the virtual world into the real one.

Overall Rating

Engagement Is the product stimulating, entertaining, and engrossing? Will kids want to return?

Outstanding virtual labs engage users in detailed biotech lab procedures. Students' actions initiate cellular/molecular processes made visible through animation. Embedded questions check for understanding.

Pedagogy Is learning content seamlessly baked-in, and do kids build conceptual understanding? Is the product adaptable and empowering? Will skills transfer?

Virtual labs provide realistic opportunities to practice techniques, from aseptic to advanced. Invisible processes are animated, and lab wikis deliver content. Feedback, though, isn’t informative enough to help kids correct all mistakes.

Support Does the product take into account learners of varying abilities, skill levels, and learning styles? Does it address both struggling and advanced students?

The student LabPad provides step-by-step instructions, scores, and progress. Some users will still get stuck due to incorrect techniques and technical glitches. Hints or an option to skip ahead could really help stalled users.

Common Sense Reviewer
Christie Thomas Classroom teacher

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