Remote-controlled microscopes bring complex biology education to students around the world

In many communities around the world, students’ ability and enthusiasm to pursue STEM fields in their high school and college careers is limited by a lack of resources that prevents them from accessing a complex curriculum based on projects like their peers. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these existing educational inequalities, requiring new solutions to democratize access to this field.

UC Santa Cruz researchers have developed a method of using remote-controlled, Internet-connected microscopes to allow students around the world to participate in designing and performing biological experiments.

A new study in the journal Heliyon details this new, scalable framework for bringing project-based STEM education to students who otherwise would not have access to it. The researchers implemented the microscope technology in the biology classrooms of several Latinx communities in the United States and Latin America, and found that their technology was an effective and scalable approach to empowering underrepresented STEM students to conduct complex experiments remotely.

“Taking an internet-connected camera and putting it in the telescope of a microscope is something a lot of labs could do, said Pierre Baudin, PhD in computer engineering. student at the Baskin School of Engineering and first author of the article. “In laying out the framework in this article, the idea was to create a roadmap so that any lab that feels some sort of mission or desire to create educational resources for their community or others can set up some kind of of similar experience, allowing this concept to spread.

Tissue culture experiments are generally unheard of in high school and even in the early years of college, yet in user studies conducted for this research, underserved high school students at Alisal High School in the rural Salinas Valley near Santa Cruz may have had these experiences. .

“We allow students to do experiments that are not normally possible for [many] schools around the world, either because the materials are hazardous, or because the equipment is expensive or requires specific training for teachers and students,” said Mohammed Mostajo-Radji, lead researcher of this study.

Development of the new method

Although project-based learning has proven to be an effective method for teaching STEM concepts, it is limited by barriers such as the cost and logistics of shipping materials to isolated communities, limited teacher training, underfunded schools and potential exposure to hazardous materials. Through extensive experience working with nonprofits in education, Mostajo-Radji of UCSC’s Genomics Institute determined that a successful solution must be scalable and affordable, adaptable to local context of a school and allow students to fully explore the scientific method.

Mostajo-Radji and many other UCSC Genomics Institute researchers involved in this project believe that performing complex biological experiments via remote-controlled microscopes may be a solution that meets these criteria.

The technology that powers these remote experiments was originally developed to allow researchers from several geographically separated institutions to collaborate on stem cell research as part of a multi-institutional group called the Braingeneers. Graduate students Baudin and Victoria Ly developed the tool to control microscopes remotely from anywhere in the world, to enable non-invasive observation of cell cultures in incubators.

Mostajo-Radji, who previously served as Bolivia’s ambassador for science, technology and innovation, acknowledged that microscopy technology could be leveraged for distance education amid growing educational gaps in education. equity during the pandemic.

“[The remote-controlled microscopes] were not developed for educational purposes,” Mostajo-Radji said. “What we’ve done is take a lot of the lessons that we’ve learned from the nonprofit work of me and others to build something that’s quite remarkable.”

Mostajo-Radji believes this article is the first to describe a method that is both truly distant and makes full use of the scientific method, introducing inquiry and active learning into lessons, which can be particularly important for students who are less memorization-based learners.

Learn from students around the world

The article describes a framework for other laboratories and classrooms to conduct remote-controlled experiments, in which students design an experiment, make observations, analyze data, and present their results.

The researchers learned from several studies of users who used this method locally with advanced biology students from Alisal High School in Salinas, and abroad with students from two different universities in Bolivia and multinational students involved in the non-profit organization Science Clubs International. The experiments were conducted in Santa Cruz and San Francisco and accessed completely remotely by students. The lessons for each group reflected the student’s local context and complemented an already existing curriculum.

The program’s first pilot began in fall 2020, at the height of the pandemic. The programs varied between the different groups and generally lasted about eight weeks. The researchers met weekly for lessons with some of the groups of students, and with other groups they gave a tutorial on how to use the technology at first and allowed them to conduct the experiments in a way independent.

One experiment that was conducted with students at Salinas was a “clinical trial in a dish” that allowed students to see the effect of new drugs on neuroblastoma, a cancerous tumor, in cell lines. In other experiments, students investigated the biocompatibility of custom-made gold and graphene nanoparticles

Surveys conducted at the end of user study programs showed that this method had a positive impact on STEM identity among both cohorts, although more strongly among Bolivian students, and led to increased overall interest in participating students. These results offered an opportunity to understand STEM motivation among Latinx populations without the extrapolation of findings from a geographically limited study.

“For many of these educational strategies and policies, [researchers] I like to think that a study done in a particular region of the world is representative to inform policy in another part of the world,” Mostajo-Radji said. “Here, for the first time, we painstakingly compare groups of Hispanic [in California] and Hispanics Abroad, in the exact same classroom setting, exactly the same lesson, and exactly the same experiences.

Expand the program

The team is now in the process of applying for grants to build the infrastructure needed to expand this work. They envision an app that would allow high school and community college students from anywhere in the world who wouldn’t otherwise engage in research to design and run experiments completely remotely. Researchers recently created the Live Cell Biotechnology Discovery Laboratory to intensify the use of their technology.

Ideally, they would have hundreds of microscopes running different experiments. Mostajo-Radji imagines that students from different parts of the world could be in the same group and learn from the same data together.

The researchers are actively seeking more partners through conferences to build relationships beyond the schools they worked with for this study. To that end, Mostajo-Radji was recently invited to join the U.S. National Academy of Sciences at the International Borders Symposium in Nairobi, Kenya, to share this idea and create educational partnerships to bring these technologies to more students.

The researchers also want to go beyond microscopy. Areas of interest include devices for teaching microfluidic programming and teaching techniques of electrophysiology, the study of electrical properties of biological cells and tissues, to non-visual learners.

“Microscopy, in a way, was a low hanging fruit,” Mostajo-Radji said. “It’s just the beginning.”

UCSC graduate students Raina Sacksteder, Atesh Worthington, Kateryna Voitiuk, and Victoria Ly were all major contributors to this study. This work was supported by the Schmidt Futures Initiative and the National Science Foundation.

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