Adapting laboratory techniques to distance education

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PICTURE: Pablo Perez-Pinera, left, and Karin Jensen developed remote lab exercises to help students learn common lab techniques. view After

Credit: Karin Jensen

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced instructors to adapt their courses for online learning. Classes in the laboratory were particularly difficult due to the lack of access to specialized equipment for distance learners. To overcome this challenge, researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign designed a lab exercise to teach students how to use micropipettes, through distance learning, using home kits.

Micropipettes are common and essential laboratory instruments and are used in several fields including molecular biology, microbiology and biochemistry. They are used to accurately transfer very small volumes of liquid. To teach students how to use these instruments, researchers developed kits, costing $ 135 per student, which is a fraction of the cost of instructional equipment normally used for in-person lessons.

“Although laboratory kits have been developed previously, they did not focus on micropipetting skills,” said Karin Jensen, assistant professor of bioengineering, who worked with the associate professor of bio- engineering Pablo Perez-Pinera (ACPP) to develop the project. “In an effort to provide remote students with a lab experience, we have developed and shipped student kits. These kits contained materials and reagents allowing them to practice their technique and perform experiments from a distance.

Each kit contained a mini-scale, a glucometer, a pipet-aid and a set of micropipettes. Each student received the kit, an instructional video, and a lab manual. They were asked to follow the protocol step by step in order to learn how to dilute the glucose solutions correctly and to check their accuracy using the glucometer. They also shared their data with the instructors for comments and scoring.

Students also completed surveys and feedback forms on the effectiveness of these online courses. “We found that most of the students were excited to use lab equipment despite being in an online section,” Jensen said.

Researchers are now working to improve exercise. “Beyond COVID-19, there is still a need to develop distance lab learning opportunities for students who cannot attend labs in person,” Jensen said. “Remote lab activities, similar to what we describe, will be important in increasing access to STEM education.”

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The article “Remote lab exercise to develop micropipetting skills” was published in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education. The study was funded by the Department of Bioengineering and the Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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