Computer simulations improve university instructional laboratories

NJ Gibbons, Chris Evans, A Payne, K Shah, DK Griffin
in Cell Biology Education, Journal article

Abstract

Laboratory classes are commonplace and essential in biology departments but can sometimes be cumbersome, unreliable, and a drain on time and resources. As university intakes increase, pressure on budgets and staff time can often lead to reduction in practical class provision. Frequently, the ability to use laboratory equipment, mix solutions, and manipulate test animals are essential learning outcomes, and "wet" laboratory classes are thus appropriate. In others, however, interpretation and manipulation of the data are the primary learning outcomes, and here, computer-based simulations can provide a cheaper, easier, and less time- and laborintensive alternative. We report the evaluation of two computer-based simulations of practical exercises: the first in chromosome analysis, the second in bioinformatics. Simulations can provide significant time savings to students (by a factor of four in our first case study) without affecting learning, as measured by performance in assessment. Moreover, under certain circumstances, performance can be improved by the use of simulations (by 7% in our second case study). We concluded that the introduction of these simulations can significantly enhance student learning where consideration of the learning outcomes indicates that it might be appropriate. In addition, they can offer significant benefits to teaching staff. © 2004 by The American Society for Cell Biology.